Artichokes are in season, and both Tony and I have fond memories of eating artichokes as children. Tony always looked forward to his mother's Italian stuffed artichokes, which were filled with a mixture of seasoned bread crumbs, parmesan cheese and fresh herbs. These were a staple in his family each spring, and his mother would prepare them several times throughout the season.

In my family, each spring when I was young my parents would plan an elegant dinner party just for our family, inspired by the arrival of artichoke season. We would all dress up for the occasion, and the table would be set with their best china, crystal and silver. For the first course, each of us would receive a steamed artichoke and a ramekin of drawn butter, and then the fun would begin.

As a mother now, I admire how my parents made this unusual vegetable seem so special. Tony and I introduced artichokes to our son, Giovanni, two years ago at Easter, at a time when he wasn't very excited about eating his veggies. We built up the excitement for days, just like our parents did, so that by the time we served them he couldn't help but try one. This is an interactive vegetable, eaten by hand leaf by leaf, which makes it fun for kids to participate.

The artichoke is actually a variety of thistle in the sunflower family, and the part we eat is the bud of the flower before it blooms. The plant is native to the Mediterranean region, with roots in ancient Greek and Roman cuisine. California now produces nearly all of the artichokes consumed in the U.S.

The process for preparing, and eating, artichokes may be a bit involved, but this green vegetable is packed with healthy benefits that make it worth the extra effort. Most of us are familiar with the heart of the artichoke, the bulk of its nutrients are actually found in its leaves, which are rich in antioxidants that can enhance our resistance to illness and help extend our lives.

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Bigger isn't necessarily better when it comes to fruits and vegetables, as many tend to lose flavor when they get too large, so look for ones that are medium-sized when selecting your artichokes.

There's some maintenance involved in the preparation, but as long as you can use a knife and scissors you'll do just fine, and you can even engage the kids to help. First, clean each artichoke by running under cold water for a couple of minutes. Next, use a sharp knife to cut each stem off, close to the base and as flat as possible so that the artichoke can stand upright in a baking dish. Then, use the same knife to remove the top half-inch of the artichoke.

The leaves are tipped with prickly thorns that will soften somewhat as the artichoke cooks, but we recommend removing them just to be safe. Use a scissors for this step and trim the tip off each leaf, which will also enhance the final presentation. The artichokes are then steamed, and can be served plain or stuffed just before steaming.

To steam, place each artichoke in a baking dish filled with a half-inch of water, cover tightly with aluminum foil and bake at 350 degrees for one hour. Cool for five minutes, then eat by hand, removing each leaf and scraping the flesh with your teeth.

We've included the recipe for Italian stuffed artichokes, and hope you'll give this unique vegetable a try in your own home.

Italian Stuffed Artichokes

Makes 4 stuffed artichokes

Serves 4 to 8

Ingredients

4 medium-sized artichokes

4 cups Italian seasoned breadcrumbs

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup fresh parsley, finely chopped

4 garlic cloves, minced

¼ cup olive oil

2 teaspoons kosher salt

2 teaspoon black pepper

Extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling

Directions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Rinse the artichokes under cold water for 2 minutes, dry with paper towels. Use a sharp knife to cut the stems off each artichoke, close to its base and as flat as possible so that the artichoke will stand upright in a baking dish.

Next, cut the top half-inch off each artichoke, and then use a scissors to trim the thorny tip off each leaf.

In a large bowl, mix together breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, parsley, minced garlic, ¼ cup olive oil, salt and pepper until well combined. To stuff the artichoke, pull each leaf back to open and stuff evenly with breadcrumb mixture. Lower leaves are larger and will require more breadcrumbs than those at the top.

Once done, generously drizzle the top of each artichoke with extra virgin olive oil and transfer to a baking dish. Fill dish with a half-inch of water and cover entire dish with tin foil, fastening tightly so that the steam does not escape.

Bake in the oven for 1 hour, until the leaves have softened and the breadcrumbs are a rich, golden brown.

To eat, peel the leaves off, scooping out the breadcrumbs at the same time, and scrape the flesh with your teeth. Once all the leaves have been eaten, remove the hairs (choke) and scoop out the heart, if desired.

"Home With the Lost Italian" is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 10-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at dine//thelostitalian.areavoices.com.