Ask the forager: An abundance of artichokes
Ask the Forager
Dear Alan: I love artichokes, so I’m looking for some fresh ideas about how to serve them.
Alan: Spring is the season of change, so it’s a good time to bring new life to the dinner table as well. Artichokes, along with asparagus, pretty much define spring for me.
Artichoke plants came to California with Italian immigrants who settled near Half Moon Bay on the coast south of San Francisco. The center of production is still on the central coast, in the area around Watsonville and Monterey. They also grow well in our area, where we get a nice crop in mid spring.
The longer artichokes stay on the plant, the less desirable they become. They are in fact the flower bud of an edible thistle. The young buds are crisp and dense, so that’s what to look for at the market.
They should be unblemished, tightly closed, entirely unopened and vibrant in color. Check the stem end, where it was cut from the plant. It gradually darkens after cutting, so it should look as fresh as possible.
Artichokes don’t improve in quality after they are harvested, so try to use them as soon as possible. If you have to keep them for a day or two, put them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Italy, where they have been grown for thousands of years, is the country with the greatest love for artichokes and the perfect climate for growing. Naturally they have many recipes for using artichokes.
Artichokes may be eaten raw or cooked. The easiest preparation is to cook them whole in simmering water until the base is tender to the point of a paring knife, usually 30 to 40 minutes. If you are in a hurry you can cut them in half lengthwise before cooking.
Cooked artichokes may be eaten warm or cold. The easiest dipping sauce for warm artichokes is a small bowl of melted butter with a squeeze of lemon.
But warm or cold, you can serve them with a vinaigrette, a lemon mayonnaise or aïoli, or for special occasions, hollandaise or béarnaise sauce.
After removing the leaves one by one, dipping in sauce and scraping the tender bit of the leaf base with your teeth, the real prize is ready to be enjoyed – the heart.
Scrape out the bristly, aptly-named choke from the base, using a small spoon. Then attack with knife and fork.
Artichoke bottoms, minus the stem, leaves and choke, can be filled or stuffed with any number of mixtures. The classic French garnish for beef tenderloin is artichoke bottoms filled with buttered peas or sliced asparagus.
They may also be cut in wedges and sautéed with onions and garlic, or even tiny new potatoes. You can make a gratin with thin-sliced bottoms, baked with thyme, cream and a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.
Raw artichoke bottoms are a chore to prepare, but delicious sliced thin and tossed in a salad with sliced raw mushrooms, olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Top with shavings of Parmesan cheese.
To prepare artichoke bottoms, have a small sharp paring knife, a sharp chef’s knife, and some cut lemons at the ready to rub on the cut surfaces of the artichoke as you go along.
Pull off any loose leaves at the bottom, and make a cut crosswise through the leaves, about 1-1/2 inches from the base. Place the artichoke cut side down on your work surface and trim off all the dark green parts of the leaves, leaving only their pale green basses. Rub the cut surfaces with lemon to prevent browning.
Peel away any dark green skin at the bottom. Use a teaspoon to scrape out all of the choke and the thin yellow leaves inside. Rub again with cut lemon as you go along.
Drop the trimmed bottoms into a bowl of cold water that has had one or two lemons squeezed in. Now they are ready to boil, steam, stuff, slice or braise.
The following herb sauce is a wonderful accompaniment for cooked artichokes, warm or cold.
Salsa Verde (Adapted from Chez Panisse Café Cookbook)
Makes about 2 cups
½ cup chopped Italian (flat leaf) parsley
¼ cup finely chopped green onions or shallot
¼ cup chopped fresh mint or basil
2 Tablespoons capers, rinsed and coarsely chopped
2 anchovy filets, rinsed and chopped (optional but good)
grated zest of ½ lemon
¾ cup best olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
fresh ground black pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice
Mix together the parsley, green onions or shallots, chopped herbs, capers, optional anchovies and lemon zest. Stir in the olive oil, salt and half a dozen grinds of pepper. At this point the sauce may be covered and refrigerated for several hours. Just before serving stir in the lemon juice.
Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef’s Tables at Tess’ Kitchen Store, 115 Mill Street in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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