“You see, in the old days, everyone called this Spaghetti Hill because all the Italian fisherman lived here — they needed to be close to their boats and the wharf was right there,” Mary Guerra said, waving in the direction of the harbor. “It was good for their wives too. They could walk to the stores for their shopping — most of them didn’t drive,” said Guerra, food service manager at Monterey High School, whom we were interviewing for our blog, “Who’s Cooking School Lunch.”
She continued to tell us tales of Spaghetti Hill, part of the historic area known as the Lower Old Town, a cozy neighborhood of mixed historic architecture and a landscape full of citrus, olive, eucalyptus and pepper trees, and the occasional prickly pear cactus. We were pretty sure there were also fig trees and grapevines in the back yards, tucked out of sight.
Mary told us about great Italian family dinners — her mother was one of nine children — where they made raviolis, plenty of fresh pasta and, of course, lots of fish. “My husband and I both grew up here on Spaghetti Hill, only one block from each other. My grandfather was a commercial fisherman.”
We followed Mary’s directions as she pointed out different streets and locations, we realized that our hotel was right down the hill. The night before we — like the Italian fisherman of the old days — had walked out onto the wharf, not to fish but to eat fish. The wharf is lined with restaurants serving fish and the ubiquitous deep-fried artichoke. We opted for Domenico’s mostly because the tout in front (it seemed every restaurant had a sidewalk tout) promised us a harbor-side table and complimentary appetizers. Not too discriminating on our part, perhaps, but it was late and we were tired.
However, we were not disappointed. The appetizer turned out to be fresh, deep-fried anchovies, served with garlic mayonnaise, which we followed with a salad and a shared bowl of mussels. We ordered a local wine, and enjoyed the lights glittering on the bay before heading back to our hotel rooms at the Portola Hotel with a view of the same harbor.
We missed the deep-fried artichokes, but after leaving Mary and completing the last of our scheduled school lunch interviews in Seaside, we headed home through the vast fields of artichokes. Hoping to find a farm stand to buy some artichokes to take home, we stopped outside of Castroville; parked alongside a farm stand was a bright green food truck, the “Chokemobile,” where top billing went to deep-fried artichokes with a choice of three sauces — plus tacos, burritos and other Mexican fare.
How could we resist? We got an order of fried artichokes with garlic mayonnaise, and four carnitas tacos with everything. The artichokes had a little too much batter for our liking, but we’d try them again — or even make our own. The tacos were perfect — just the right amount of finely chopped white onion, cilantro and tomatoes, the pork well-seasoned, and the corn tortillas nice and hot and soft.
After lunch, we purchased our artichokes. Fresh artichokes should always squeak when you rub the leaves together, and the ones we checked at the stand not only squeaked, they were loud! A dozen baby artichokes and two extra-large each, plus a full stalk of Brussels sprouts and a chat with the stand manager about how she prepares them — “Sauté in olive oil with garlic” — and we were back on the road.
All in all, we were in Monterey less than 24 hours, but we concurred it was well worth the time and the visit. The air was salty with a little mist in it, the wharf and harbor nostalgic, and we had a taste of California history as we stood on Spaghetti Hill and listened to Mary’s stories. And we brought some of the coast back to us with bags of artichokes and stalks of Brussels sprouts.
Our only regret was that we didn’t have time to sample the spa facilities at our hotel and spend a little more time on the balcony, looking out over the harbor.
— Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan are coauthors of the award-winning “Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, Tasting California’s Small Farms,” (2012.) They have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC. Their national blog “Who’s Cooking School Lunch?” features personal stories of front line men and women cooking school lunch. Reach the blog at www.whoscookingschoolunch.com and Ann and Georgeanne at [email protected]
Italian Stuffed Artichokes
The freshly torn bread absorbs the vinegar, olive oil, and seasonings to make a light, flavorful stuffing for the artichokes; the coarser the bread, the better. This dish makes an exceptional first course, one which takes a bit of convivial time to eat.
4 medium-to-large artichokes
1 cup water
4 cups fresh bread crumbs, made from a coarse country bread, such as ciabatta or a rustic baguette
5 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley (about 1 bunch)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Putting it together:
Cut off the stem flush with the base and the top one-third (the prickly leaf ends) of each artichoke. Pour water to a depth of about 3 inches into a steamer pan, put the rack in place, and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Place the artichokes, stem end up, on the rack, reduce the heat to medium, cover, and steam until the base of an artichoke offers little resistance when pierced with the tines of a fork, about 30 minutes. The timing will depend on the size and maturity of the artichokes.
Remove the artichokes from the steamer and set aside until cool enough to handle. Then, using a spoon, scoop out the central leaves from each artichoke, removing the thistles and any furry bits, to make a cavity about 1 1/2 inches wide. Set the artichokes aside.
In a bowl, combine the water and bread crumbs and stir to moisten the crumbs evenly. Let stand just long enough to soften the bread, anywhere from 15 seconds to several minutes, depending on how dry the bread is and how coarse the crumbs are. Squeeze the bread crumbs dry and transfer to a clean bowl.
Add the vinegar, parsley, garlic (if using), 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, the pepper, the lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil to the bread and mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if needed. The mixture will appear fluffy but should be dense enough to hold its shape when squeezed into a ball. Add up to 1 tablespoon additional oil if needed to achieve the correct consistency.
Spoon about 1/4 cup of the stuffing into the cavity of an artichoke. Pry back a layer of the leaves, and tuck 1/2 teaspoon or so of the stuffing at the base of each leaf in the layer. Pry back another layer and repeat. Continue until you have filled all of the layers. The artichoke will expand like a flower. Repeat with the remaining 3 artichokes.
Cover the artichokes with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 8 hours before serving. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour before serving. Serves 4.
— Adapted from the Davis Farmers Market Cookbook by Georgeanne Brennan and Ann M. Evans