Artichokes sprout a few thorns, but underneath all that armor, their tough leaves protect delicate creamy flesh.
Harvested before they blossom with spiky flowers, artichokes are actually unopened buds from a type of thistle plant. The plants produce clusters of large buds, not only tasty to eat but striking enough to use as a centerpiece. With many distant relatives in the daisy family of flowering plants, artichokes remind me of a stunning flower, the giant protea, with a cone-shaped appearance and tropical beauty. A bin of harvested artichoke globes draws more than a passing look at our local grocery store, but a field of green artichoke plants with thick stems shooting up several feet toward the California sky can stop traffic, or perhaps prompt drivers to slow down to admire roadside fields.
Sometimes we all need to take a good look at what we’re cooking and eating. Driving along California’s Highway 1 through Castroville a few weeks ago, we stopped our car to check out the dreamy fields of artichoke plants. The small unincorporated town of Castroville touts itself as the world’s artichoke capital, rich in fertile farmland with a cool coastal climate ideal for growing the plants as well as other crops like lettuce and strawberries that flourish in the Salinas Valley. We’ve enjoyed sharing artichokes around our table since my husband and I lived not far from Castroville nearly 20 years ago. Seeing again one of our favorite foods ready for harvest in this small community that is the big-time producer of the plant reminded us why we appreciate artichokes so much. Working away through each layer of leaves to reach the prized heart allows time to linger over conversation.
I’ve found steaming rather than roasting or stuffing them the simplest way to celebrate a meal of artichokes, with one for each of us if they’re small, served up with a warm garlicky butter and toast. Prep includes nothing more than cutting off the stem and any tough lower leaves to flatten the bottom, trimming the thorniest top leaves with kitchen scissors, and placing them in a pot of salted water doused with a splash of olive oil and lemon juice. After 20 minutes of steaming, when leaves pull away easily, it’s dipping time. We peel off each leaf to eat them one by one, gently pulling leaves through teeth for the mini reward of a buttery bite of the underside of each leaf, and then carefully remove the fuzzy choke and slice up the meaty bottom for the long-awaited honors of its center.
Anyone in a hurry should be banned from the table when the meal includes whole steamed artichokes. A diner who moves too quickly on the heart is often rewarded with a forkful of hairy choke.
Artichokes enhance so many recipes. One of my favored sauces is an artichoke-mushroom medley made with heavy cream. Spinach and artichoke quiche never fails for brunch, and fried artichokes make their case as the perfect appetizer. A friend and I recently shared a fine plate of fried baby artichokes, — lightly crisped and served with a roasted garlic-olive tapenade aioli — on the open airy patio at The Roundhouse in Beacon. Steamed, marinated, pickled or fried, artichokes can go solo or harmonize to finish a dish. Nothing beats fresh, but even frozen, jarred or canned artichokes add a little extra bloom to a meal.
Steam your own to dip leaves in butter and slide across those teeth, toss marinated hearts in a leafy green salad or fry a batch of baby artichokes and savor them with garlic sauce.
Artichokes (Fried or Steamed)
4 medium artichokes
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup corn meal
1 cup bread crumbs
1 cup olive oil
juice of half lemon (if needed)
Fried: Mix corn meal, bread crumbs, salt and pepper and set aside. Trim top and stem of artichoke with sharp knife. Peel away tough outer leaves to expose soft inner layers. Open the center using fingers to pull leaves apart and with a metal spoon remove fuzzy choke, or cut artichoke in half and spoon or cut away choke and surrounding purplish leaves. Cut in half again for quartered pieces. (If not using right away, place pieces in lemon water.) Dredge pieces in beaten eggs and dry mixture and fry in olive oil over medium heat until lightly golden. Remove fried pieces to paper towels to drain excess oil. Serve immediately.
Steamed: For the alternative steamed version, place cut pieces in a heavy pan with enough water to cover pan’s bottom below steamer basket. Steam 15 minutes until tender and serve with lemon wedges, garlic butter or aioli.
(Makes 1 cup)
3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
3 egg yolks
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon boiling water
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon sriracha chili sauce (or any hot sauce)
½ teaspoon salt
Mix garlic and egg yolks in bowl with whisk. Add salt and boiling water and mix thoroughly. Gradually beat in olive oil. Mix in lemon juice, sriracha and salt. Serve with prepared artichokes.
By Mary Ann Ebner, first published by The Highlands Current