January 7, 2014

By: Kathryn Dwyer, Culinary Arts Student

Epistle to the Thistle 1A surprising fact I learned when I moved to Colorado from California to attend Auguste Escoffer School of Culinary Arts was how few people were familiar with or enjoyed my favorite vegetable, the artichoke. One of the most regal, ancient vegetables, artichokes now have a bit of a reputation – difficult and time consuming to prepare, expensive and very seasonal, some of my classmates complained about how little of it you can actually eat…they are something of a hassle. Unfortunately, I don’t know if many of my classmates turned into artichoke appreciators like me during our program, but hopefully I can tempt them (and you!) into fandom with one of my favorite ingredients, frozen artichoke hearts.

Frozen artichoke hearts are conveniently free from many of the time-consuming aspects of using fresh artichokes, they are cleaned, trimmed and cook very quickly. In the culinary program and especially during the farm-to-table experience the focus is on seasonal cooking, but in the winter months here in Colorado there are fewer options for fresh, local ingredients. A good alternative is organically grown frozen produce. Frozen fruits and vegetables are picked when they are ripe then flash frozen, preserving the nutritional value that can be lost in fresh out-of-season vegetables that are picked under ripe, then shipped long distances. If possible, find artichoke hearts individually frozen rather than in a block of ice; they thaw quickly and easily and do not give off excessive moisture like some frozen vegetables.

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Stocked in your freezer, frozen artichoke hearts are incredibly versatile and useful. Flavors that naturally compliment artichokes range from rich cream and butter to bright lemon and garlic, they are enhanced by slow caramelization or robust roasting, red pepper heat to sweet Marsala glaze. A favorite artichoke dish that I made for my family over the holidays (but can certainly be made year round!) is artichoke and ricotta stuffed shells. With a touch of brown butter and caramelized onion to enhance the earthy artichokes in the filling, the pasta shells are covered luscious lemon and garlic béchamel, resulting in a dish both delicate and decadent.

With artichokes no longer restricted to the spring season because of the convenience and quality of frozen artichokes hearts, hopefully this humble thistle will make its way into your meals more often. Artichoke hearts compliment and enhance many dishes with their understated flavor and creamy texture and frozen artichoke hearts are a great option, both for their preserved nutritional value and convenience in use. Here is hoping your New Year is filled with friends and family, good food and (artichoke) heart.

Artichoke and Ricotta Stuffed Shells
Inspired by The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

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Yield: 6 main course servings, 12 side dish servings

For the shells:
24 jumbo pasta shells
3 Tbs butter
2 Tbs olive oil – divided
1 medium onion – small dice
2 (medium sized) leeks – small dice
2 garlic cloves – minced
12 oz frozen artichoke hearts – thawed and dried
1 Tbs fresh thyme
1/3 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 egg yolks
2 Tbs lemon juice
¾ tsp salt
fresh ground black pepper to taste
8 oz ricotta cheese
1 Tbs fresh parsley – chopped

For the Sauce:
1/3 cup butter (4 Tbs)
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 garlic clove – minced
3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
2 Tbs lemon juice
2 tsp lemon zest
1/2 tsp salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 Tbs fresh parsley – chopped


1. Cook the shells according to package directions – be sure to cook al dente. Drain and toss with 1 Tbs olive oil to prevent sticking.
2. To make filling: Melt butter in saucepan – continue to let butter brown until the milk solids begin to caramelize, do not burn! Add 1 Tbs olive oil, onions and leeks, cook until very soft and lightly brown. Add garlic and thyme and cook for 1 minute, add artichoke hearts and cook until softened – about 6 minutes. Add wine and cook au sec (until it disappears). Remove from heat and let cool about 30 minutes.
3. In the bowl of a food processor, add onion/artichoke mixture, egg yolks, Parmesan cheese, lemon juice, salt and pepper and pulse in food processor until finely chopped but some texture remains.
4. Mix in ricotta and parsley and taste for salt and pepper/lemon. Adjust as needed. Scoop about 2 Tbs filling into each cooked pasta shell, they should be full but able to almost close around the filling.
5. To make sauce: Melt butter in a saucepan, add garlic and cook until fragrant, then add flour to make blonde roux. Add half the milk in small increments, whisking to remove all lumps, once half the milk is incorporated, the rest can be whisked in. Bring to a boil and reduce to simmer and cook until béchamel is thickened. Add Parmesan cheese, lemon juice and zest, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings.
6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Pour 1½ cups sauce into bottom of 9×13 baking dish, arrange filled pasta shells seam up. Spread remaining sauce over top of shells and cover with aluminum foil (dish can be prepared to this step and held in refrigerator overnight).
7. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes, remove the foil and bake another 15 minutes until bubbly and lightly browned. Sprinkle with parsley and serve immediately.