Thursday, March 3, 2011

It's Artichoke Season!

Hooray--for who wouldn't want to sit around the table and pick over a heap of artichokes? Well, probably a lot of people because it's been my experience that there are two camps when it comes to this prickly thistle: Love 'em or Hate 'em. If you hate them, there are only two possible reasons: they are challenging to prepare and leave your fingertips cracked and discolored (latex gloves are a handy way to nip this in the bud) or there simply isn't much to eat on an artichoke. True; I've known many a person to utilize an artichoke leaf as a vehicle for a dipping sauce, and it's even more true that there is just a little bit of 'meat' for one's teeth to scrape away on each leaf, but eating a pile of artichokes is as fun, rewarding, and delicious as spending an afternoon picking crabs? Not to mention, once you pick your way through all of the leaves, you get the real prize--the heart. So, it's fairly safe to say that if you can't fathom a better way to spend the day, then you come down in the other camp--a bona fide artichoke lover.

That's me. So, when Ken came home the other night with a lumpy brown paper bag and a Cheshire grin on his face and announced he had a surprise for me, I knew that the Artichoke Man must have stopped by his office. When I opened the bag and peered in to see 7 beautiful, medium-sized artichokes, I was thrilled, for not only would I get to eat artichokes, but it also meant that Spring was on its way and soon enough, all the delights of the new season would be bountiful and ready to enjoy.

Before I espouse on how to cook, or even eat, an artichoke, perhaps a bit of artichoke trivia to brighten the day. First off, the artichoke is truly a Mediterranean discovery. First discovered in Sicily, the ancient Romans actually would candy the hearts with honey and cumin seed, which is sort of fascinating to me as well as how someone somewhere hit upon the genius idea of actually preparing and eating an artichoke the way we do now; it must have been hell to have been an early artichoke aficionado--one's mouth literally torn to pieces from the sharp leaves and well, raw artichokes, at least the older ones, are very bitter. Anyhow, discover a better way to eat them, they did, and the artichoke moved around Europe and gained popularity, eventually riding the seas to Louisiana with the French and then soon after, taken by the Spanish to California. Now, virtually every artichoke eaten in the United States originates from Monterrey County, which just so happens to be about 90 minutes up the road from me, and, 80% of all artichokes are grown in a little town called Castroville, which is located in Monterrey County. Finally, just to note, in 1947 Marilyn Monroe was crowned the Queen of the Artichokes in Castroville, which is a bit ironic since at one point, the artichoke was also considered to be an aphrodisiac.

During the years that I lived in Louisiana, the artichoke and I were fast friends. Possibly, the most common preparation of the artichoke there is stuffed, or shall I say, overstuffed, with bread crumbs and parmesan cheese and garlic, and then soaked in olive oil and baked. At times, this recipe varies; sometimes one can find it with shrimp or crab stuffing, but aside from these two deviations, I am fairly unable to recall any other artichoke recipes. Wait! I take that back; I've known many a family to throw a big bag into a boiling crawfish pot along with the crawfish and other delicacies, but since this isn't something readily available at a local eatery, it easily slips from the mind.

It's really no surprise that moving to California opened me up to a whole new world of artichoke preparation. Perhaps, one of the most remarkable discoveries, and one only available within a short radius of the artichoke farm, is the baby artichoke. As big as a walnut, the whole thing is edible; they are delectable shaved into an vibrant pale green mound, drizzled with olive oil and a squeeze of lemon (I opt for Myer lemon), a slight sprinkling of sea salt and a few grinds of pepper. They are also marvelous baked in a bit of olive oil with slivered garlic and piled onto toasted slices of sourdough and should there be any leftovers from this last preparation, they are amazing stuffed between thick slices of bead with Fontina cheese and grilled until golden brown.

The eateries in the San Francisco area brought an array of pickled and marinated artichokes into my life and many Italian restaurants served up delicious plates of Fritto Misto, or bits of artichoke and seafood (usually calamari), dipped in batter and fried in olive oil. Artichokes sort of disappeared once we moved south, outside of Los Angeles, but then, after we moved north and settled into life along the Central Coast, they reappeared as rustic as the geography--grilled over an open fire with lots of garlic and lemon.
While all of these recipes are quite delicious and reflect ones I've made in my own kitchen during my years in the Golden State, I love the simple preparation (possibly a grossly negligent statement in a piece about artichokes) of oven roasting the thistles with olive oil and garlic and then packing a bit of parmesan
cheese into the cavity and letting it cook until bubbly and brown.

Roasted Artichokes

The Hard Part: Pull away the first ring or two of thick leaves closest to the stem. With sharp kitchen scissors, cut away the sharp tips of the leaves, digging a bit into the artichoke for the 'hidden' leaves at the top. Put a kitchen towel down and place the artichokes on the towel. With a sharp knife, cut the top of the artichoke away (about an inch worth) and then, cut the artichoke in half. Don't worry about the inside business just yet. Place the artichokes on a plate, single layer, although a bit of an overlap here or there is nothing to worry about, squeeze a lemon over the top, add a bit of water, cover with plastic wrap and put into the microwave for about 8 to 10 minutes. The trick is to get the artichokes almost cooked through, but not overcooked, since that will result in a mushy mess. The best way to judge: pull a leaf and it gives some resistance, then you've gotten to perfection; if it cannot be pulled away, go on for a few more minutes in minute increments; if it easily pulls away, then remove the 'choke' and douse with olive oil and fresh garlic and ring the dinner bell; further cooking won't leave you the star chef.

The Pain in the Rear Part: You have to remove that fuzzy, inedible choke. For this, I discovered how invaluable a melon baller can be, for it makes fast work of the job and the scoop is a near perfect fit for the little cave that will soon be filled with cheese and garlic.

The Easy Part: Once you have all of the chokes removed, lay the artichoke halves on a rimmed cookie sheet, douse with olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and a couple of heaping spoonfuls of fresh minced garlic. Slide the pan into a preheated oven (I crank mine to  425 degrees) and allow to cook until visibly golden and the garlic is cooked. Remove pan from the oven and put a nice heaping spoonful of parmesan into the well and slide the pan back into the oven until the cheese is bubbly and browned. Remove pan; give the artichokes a few twists of the pepper mill, pile them onto a plate and serve.

The True Reward: As if eating wasn't enough, you could, and no one would be any wiser, buy a crown and crown yourself the Queen of the Artichokes. The only real trick to this is keeping your crown balanced on your head while working through the artichoke leaves, continually biting and scrapping away the flesh with your teeth.

1 comment:

  1. I like to boil my artichoke until the leaves pull off easy, then dip them in browned salted butter yum yum!