This is a funny story.

A number of years ago, I quit a low-paying job at a weekly newspaper for an even lower-paying job at an advertising agency. At the same time, I decided it would be a good idea to:

1. Buy a car.

2. Move into a higher-priced apartment.

Obviously, with a decrease in money-coming-in and an increase in money-going-out, my checkbook dwindled to nothing and my credit card bloomed to something.

Locked into a job that required 24/7 work and an apartment that turned out to have termites climbing the walls and a psychotic neighbor (who complained that my dog snored at night … but that’s another story), I was depressed. I was also frighteningly thin, considering I lived on nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and Campbell’s tomato soup.

So when Publishers Clearing House sent me its annual pitch for “you could win millions,” I figured, what the heck? I signed up for a bunch of magazines (using my credit card, natch) and waited for the Prize Patrol to come knocking.

It didn’t, but I still got a gem.

One of my magazine picks was Bon Appetit (before it became a shill for all things Austin … but that’s another story). I was amazed that you could fill 200-plus pages every month writing about nothing more than food and cooking and entertaining. I was captivated by the grownup-ness of the people in the pages and how sophisticated they all seemed. I was mesmerized by the creativity and artistry of the recipes.

I saved every copy I got that year. I couldn’t afford to make anything, but sooner or later I knew I’d get a raise, get that credit card paid off and start to eat something a little more interesting than Extra Crunchy Jif.

A couple of years later I found myself back at the weekly newspaper, earning a bigger paycheck and leasing an apartment without bugs. (It had lizards but … again … another story.) One of my friend got engaged, and I offered to throw her a wedding shower. She said yes and asked if I’d host a brunch.

I jumped at the chance and lugged out my old stash of Bon Appetits. There in the December 1988 issue was a story about a Christmas brunch celebration. Nestled between a recipe for Maudie’s Ginger Thins and Suzanne’s Crepes was the dish I’d dreamed about for two years:

Scalloped Tomatoes & Artichokes.

artichoke1Now, artichokes may not strike you as exotic today. But in the late 1980s/early 1990s, they were something else entirely. Very California. Very haute cuisine. How very sophisticated my shower would be. I spent weeks planning the menu, borrowing china and searching local stores for the recipe’s required two boxes of frozen artichokes.

The day of the shower arrived, and I put out a ham, an egg-and-sausage casserole, a champagne punch (which the groom’s mother got drunk on … but that’s another story), a bunch of sweet rolls and Scalloped Tomatoes & Artichokes. Everything was very nice, but very expected.

Except the tomatoes and artichokes. They were an instant hit — tomatoey and buttery enough to be accessible to the guests but different enough to spark questions about ingredients and conversations about cooking. I sent ham and sweet rolls home with the bride-to-be but had no tomatoes and artichokes to spare.

That brunch was more than 20 years ago, but Scalloped Tomatoes & Artichokes have found a place on my table ever since. They aren’t a mainstay (although they’re easy enough to make that they could be). Rather, they’re what I roll out for special dinners and our family’s Christmas celebrations. With their rosy hue and flecks of green artichokes and herbs, they seem the perfect holiday dish. And they’re easy to play with. I’ve been known to substitute asparagus for the artichokes and fresh herbs for the oh-so-’80s dried.

The Publishers Clearing House Prize Patrol never did come knocking on my door. But I look back on those years and still feel like a winner. Scalloped Tomatoes & Artichokes have paid me dividends for decades.

I hope they do you, too.

Scalloped Tomatoes & Artichokes (Bon Appetit)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Remove the crusts of 2-3 slices of white bread and cut the slices into 3/4-inch cubes. Place on a cookie sheet and bake until dry, about 10 minutes. Transfer to a large bowl and increase oven temp to 400 degrees.

Butter an 11- by 7-inch baking dish. Add 1/2 cup chopped onion, 1 28-ounce can of whole tomatoes, undrained, and 1 14.5-ounce can of whole tomatoes, undrained, to the bread cubes. Stir in 2 10-ounce packages of frozen artichokes, thawed, drained and quartered. (If you can’t find frozen artichokes, use 2 cans of water-packed.)

In a saucepan, melt 1/4 cup unsalted butter. Add 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/2 teaspoon dried basil, 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme and 1/4 teaspoon ground pepper. Stir one minute. Add to tomato mixture and combine thoroughly.

Pour mixture into prepared baking dish. Top with 2/3 cup Parmesan cheese. Bake, uncovered, until bubbling and golden, about 30 minutes. Serve hot.

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