Italian immigrants introduced artichokes at Half Moon Bay many years ago, and now Salinas is a growing mecca for artichokes. BigStock photo

Italian immigrants introduced artichokes at Half Moon Bay many years ago, and now Salinas is a growing mecca for artichokes. BigStock photo

Food & Drink

From field to fork: Artichokes, a treat now in season

By April 5, 2011

Because I wrote about artichokes a year ago, you might reasonably wonder if I have a family member who grows them.

I am trying to drum up interest. The rest of America can only wish that it had fresh artichokes grown nearby; we have that blessing here in Northern California, yet so many people won’t even try them. By the way, Italian immigrants introduced artichokes at Half Moon Bay long ago, so if you have any Italian blood in your veins, show it at the table.

Artichokes taste better than cauliflower. As finger food, they’re easier than picking apart a Dungeness crab. And just as French fries are made for dipping in ketchup at your family table, the petals of the artichoke were created for dipping in butter, aioli or something else.

Diane, my wife, believes that many people are simply intimidated by artichokes. How do you begin?

First of all, the spring crop is upon us. The entire U.S. commercial crop of artichokes is grown in the Salinas region, which has a unique growing climate. Let’s go shopping …

“The end of the stem should be clean, greenish white, not black. The longer they’re in storage, the blacker the stem,” says Jim Mills, my go-to man, who buys for serious chefs on behalf of Produce Express. This time of year the petals should be closed tight. Left on the plant, the artichoke would open and flower. (In the fall they tend to be more open, and there are little prickly spikes at the tip of each petal.)

If you see a bit of brown at the tips of the petals, don’t be put off, says Jim. They’re been “kissed by the cold.” It’s irrelevant. They should seem pretty heavy for their size. The larger ones should be a little squeaky under pressure in your hand.

The grocers and restaurants buy them by count to a box: 18 is jumbo, 24 is large, and the 36 or 48 are in the “baby” category. Buy large or baby artichokes, depending on your purpose, which we’ll get to.

Artichokes grow on very large plants. The jumbo size comes out the top, large ones emerge a layer down, and so-called baby artichokes come out of the plant closer to the base, under leaf shade. The baby artichokes can be hard to find, although I’ve often seen them in Nugget and they’re at the Davis Farmers Market.

Artichokes can be enjoyed in various ways, hot or cold. Boiling delivers the truest flavor, as it does for English peas and asparagus. Diane and I often boil the large ones the day before and pop them in the fridge because we like them cold with a dipping sauce. Here’s how to boil with minimal fuss.

Whatever the size of the artichoke, place in boiling water and cover. Cooking time will vary. It might be 45 minutes for a jumbo, 30 minutes for large, single digits for very small ones. You might stick a place or pot lit within the boiling water to submerge the artichokes, as they tend to float.

Fall artichokes often have a very prickly tip on each petal; people trim those away individually, which is time consuming and almost always unnecessary in the spring.

Jim, who was once a chef with Paragary restaurants, says to pull on one of the larger petals near the base. It if comes off easily, the artichoke is done. I like to take a paring knife and probe the base where it becomes the stem. It should go in and out very easily. The first time, tend toward a bit of overcooking — another few minutes.

To eat, you hold the individual petal by the tip, upside down. Put it in your mouth and draw it out, scraping off the soft “flesh” with your bottom teeth. Since that’s the technique, I will sample the petal I’ve plucked for doneness. If it’s tough, let it boil some more.

If you’re so inclined, go to http://www.Oceanmist.com, an ag concern that has a video about prepping artichokes and all the information you could want.

Large artichokes for dipping

Part of large and jumbo artichokes is left uneaten. One time through, with a bit of guidance, and you’ll know for the future.

Served cold or hot, you may find that a row or two of the very largest petals is stringier than the others. And you’ll also not want to eat the innermost, papery thin ones. They form a pale cone, once you’ve worked your way down to them. Pull this cone off and discard, or dip portions of the cone and simply bite off the most tender portion at the bottom.

You’re left with the heart of the artichoke, but there’s a little cap on top of the heart. This contains the thistle. Scrape it off; it doesn’t taste good, and has a soft, thistly mouth feel, in case you wonder whether you’re eating it.

Experiment. When you’ve done it once, like picking a crab or cutting up a whole chicken, your knowledge level is way, way up.

Try one of these dipping sauces….
Melted butter, with a bit of lemon or lime
Plain mayonnaise
Aioli, a garlic mayonnaise
Olive oil with balsamic vinegar, 3 to 1 ratio, whisked
Kosher salt, my wife’s favorite
An Italian bagna cauda, which is anchovies, garlic and olive oil

Baby artichokes

These range from golf-ball size to double or triple that. Usually each baby artichoke needs to lose at least a bottom row, even two, of its tougher outer leaves. Also, lay each on its side and slice a third of an inch off the tip and discard that. Taste after they’re boiled. There is no thistle or anything else to discard. Trimmed correctly, it should be edible throughout

We usually cut them in half and sauté them to enjoy with pasta. Let’s fire up a sauté pan while the pasta is boiling.

Warm several tablespoons of olive oil at medium low heat. Add minced garlic, perhaps anchovies, perhaps a bit of crushed red pepper. After a minute, add halved, boiled baby artichokes (hot or cold), and to your taste, black olives and/or capers. Shift to medium heat. It’s important not to use high heat, as you don’t want to fry the artichokes. During the final minute, spritz with lemon juice and add fresh Italian parsley, if available, just before ladling this atop each plate of pasta.

Baby artichokes are ideal for grilling and tossing with your favorite sauce. Jim still encourages boiling first, because a raw artichoke of any size can take a long time to get tender on a grill.

— Dan Kennedy, a Davis resident, has a long history with the bounty of gardens and small farms. Reach him at [email protected]

Dan Kennedy

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