Fresh artichokes aren’t local, even though recently cultivars have been developed for home gardeners outside the Mediterranean-type climate that’s their natural habitat (my attempts at artichoke-growing have been dismal at best). Like strawberries, fresh artichokes are available throughout much of the year in groceries, but they’re at their seasonal best in spring.
Edible artichokes are the buds of a perennial thistle, genus Cynara, originating in the Mediterranean. Wild artichokes can still be found in Northern Africa, but they’ve been cultivated around the Mediterranean for at least 2,000 years, which is still where their production is concentrated. Italy grows more than twice as much as any other country.
In America, California produces virtually all commercially grown artichokes and more than 80 percent come from Monterey County. The Monterey town of Castroville calls itself the “Artichoke Capital of the World.” That’s dubious: Italy produces more than eight times as many artichokes as America. Still I’ve had lots of fun driving around Monterey County in spring, when roadside artichoke stands sprout up everywhere.
Italy (and other Mediterranean countries) grow many artichoke varieties, some purple, others green, some as small as an egg. American artichokes are almost exclusively the giant globe type as big as a softball. “Baby” artichokes aren’t really babies, they’re smaller side buds of the big guys.
When buying artichokes, choose ones that are heavy for their size. The best way to judge that is to hold and compare several. Check the stem: the cut edge will be brown, but the stem should be green and not withered; the leaves should be green with no dry brown patches.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Carciofi alla Giudea
(Artichokes in the style of Roman Jews)
My favorite artichoke recipe appeared in my 11/3/11 IT column, available at illinoistimes.com. It’s a New Orleans variation of Italian stuffed artichokes that adds shrimp to the traditional breadcrumbs/Parmesan/garlic preparation.
That Creole recipe is my favorite, but there are many other fresh artichoke recipes I love. Baby artichokes can be eaten raw, thinly sliced for a salad. After being cooked, artichokes are wonderful eaten hot with garlic butter or a simple marinara, or cold with sauces such as the remoulade or hazelnut romesco served at my daughter’s recent wedding dinner (both also available on IT’s website).
This is one of the most famous Italian artichoke preparations, and is certainly the best-known Roman – not just Jewish Roman – artichoke recipe. Originating in Rome’s Jewish Ghetto, it dates back hundreds – maybe even thousands – of years. In Italy these are made with small Romanesco artichokes. It involves a twice-frying technique similar to that for French fries. While some recipes call for frying in extra virgin olive oil, I think cheaper pomace olive oil works just as well here.
- 1 “baby” artichoke per person, or more if desired, preferably with at least a couple inches of stem.
- 1 or more lemons, plus lemon wedges for serving
- Olive oil for frying – to at least a depth of 4 inches in a broad, deep pot
- Kosher salt
Prepare the artichokes by cutting a half inch or so off the tips of the leaves, rubbing with a cut lemon half as you go. Spread the center leaves apart and scoop out the hairy choke with a spoon or melon baller. (If the hairy chokes haven’t developed, this step isn’t necessary.) As you finish each artichoke, place it in a bowl of water that has had lemon juice added to it.
Heat the oil in the pot to 300°. Add the artichokes (do this in batches if necessary, depending on the pot’s size) and cook for 10 minutes. Remove the artichokes from the pan and turn them upside on paper toweling to drain. The artichokes can be made ahead to this point and held for up to several hours before the final frying.
Now heat the oil (adding more if necessary to bring it to the appropriate depth) to 350°. Put an artichoke into the pot. With metal tongs, place the cut side of the artichoke on the bottom of the pot. Still holding it with the tongs in one hand, press it down firmly with a metal spatula in the other hand so that the leaves splay out. Hold it there for a couple of minutes until it begins to brown, then release it, repeating the process with the remaining artichokes, and removing them as the bottoms have become completely cooked through (a knife should pierce through them easily) and the leaves crispy.
Drain on paper towels, sprinkle with salt and serve with lemon wedges.
Artichoke Hymn to Spring
This recipe is adapted from one in Jacques Pepin’s latest cookbook, Essential Pepin. It includes a DVD with dozens of useful techniques; among them is preparing artichokes for cooking. This is a classic French treatment of spring vegetables and, as the name implies, a tribute to – the essence of – spring.
- 4 medium artichokes (about 1 1/2 lbs.)
- 1 lemon, cut in half
- 1 white bulbous spring onion
- 2 T. olive oil
- 1 tsp. kosher or sea salt
- Freshly ground white pepper to taste
- 1 T. unsalted butter
- 1/2 lb. snow peas, or 3/4 lb. sugar snap peas, ends trimmed and strings removed
- 6 fat asparagus spears
- 1 small head Boston or Bibb lettuce
- pinch of sugar, optional
Trim off the thorny tips of the artichoke leaves with scissors, rubbing with the cut lemon as you go. Cut off the stems, peel them, and cut the tender centers into ˝-inch pieces. Squeeze the remaining juice in the lemon halves into a large bowl of cold water, add the artichokes and stem pieces, and set aside.
Cut the white part of the onion into 1-inch pieces (about a cup) and set aside.
Cut off the woody bottoms of the asparagus and cut into 1-inch pieces on the diagonal, about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 c. Set aside.
Cut the lettuce into 2-inch pieces, about 2 1/2 - 3 c. Set aside.
Bring a gallon of water to a boil in a non-reactive pot, add a tablespoon of salt, and gently drop in the artichokes. If the pot has a domed lid, place it upside down on the pot to keep the artichokes submerged or use a heatproof plate. Bring the water back to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cook for about 30 minutes, or until a leaf can be easily pulled from the artichokes’ base. Drain, cut side down, in a colander under cold running water.
While the artichokes simmer, put the stem pieces, onion, olive oil, salt, butter, and water in another non-reactive saucepan. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside, still in the pan.
When the artichokes are cooled, squeeze them gently (still upside down) to remove excess water, then remove and reserve the leaves, exposing their hairy chokes and bottoms. Set aside six of the nicest leaves from each artichoke for garnish and, using a spoon, gently scrape the other leaves’ bottoms to remove the edible flesh; add it to the stem mixture.
Scrape the hairy chokes from artichoke bottoms and discard, then cut each bottom into 4 wedges. The recipe can be prepared several hours ahead to this point.
About 15 minutes before serving, bring the artichoke stem/onion mixture back to a boil. Add the snow or sugar snap peas and asparagus, bring back to a boil, and cook for 2 minutes. Add the lettuce and cook for an additional 2 - 3 minutes. Taste for seasoning.
Divide the stew among four shallow bowls or plates. Reheat the artichoke wedges gently in a microwave and place them on top of the stew. Arrange the artichoke leaves around each plate’s rim. Serve immediately.