The Official Thistle

ARTICHOKE

Cynara cardunculus

BY GEORGEANNE BRENNAN

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ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL SCHWAB, MICHAELSCHWAB.COM

It’s official: The artichoke is California’s state vegetable, a declaration made in April 2013 by Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom while Governor Jerry Brown was out of the country and Newsom was the acting governor.

I don’t know if Brown agreed, but to me it does seem an appropriate selection since California grows virtually 100% of the artichokes produced and consumed in the United States. Of that, Monterey Country (which also named the artichoke its official vegetable) produces 75% of the total production, the majority of that centered around Castroville, which has proclaimed itself the Artichoke Capital of the World.

Proclamations aside, the artichoke is a fascinating vegetable. It originated in the Mediterranean region, where it has been consumed for thousands of years and remains a commonplace vegetable. However, some of the artichokes of southern France and southern Italy are quite unlike the big, heavy globes we see in the markets here. There, you’ll find smallish, pointed leafed, purple artichokes on long stems, gathered into bundles of three to five. Sometimes the leaves have nasty thorns on them, a throwback to the original, wild species—a type of thistle.

These are the ones I grow in my garden in northern California—to the dismay of my husband, who favors the big, thornless types, like Green Globe. I like them because they remind me of Provence and because they are so pretty. The flavor of the heart is not too different from the Green Globe types, but the stems are milder.

If you didn’t grow up eating fresh artichokes, they might seem a little daunting. A fresh artichoke doesn’t at all resemble canned artichokes because the only part that is typically canned is the heart and a scant inch or so of the tender inner leaves surrounding the heart. Even the color is different; the heart and the innermost leaves are pale to chartreuse green because they are protected from the sun and, thus, from photosynthesis.

The fresh artichoke, either dark or bright green, or purple, resembles an armored pyramid or globe, with tightly overlapping leaves that must be trimmed back to reach the heart. The base of these leaves—anywhere from 1/2 to 1 inch can be eaten—is scraped off by biting the leaf between your teeth. The more leaves you remove, the closer you get to the heart. Depending upon the maturity of an artichoke, the heart may be surrounded by and even covered with thistles, resembling fine hairs, which must be removed before slicing into the tender, flavorful heart.

Artichokes are usually eaten cooked—steamed, most commonly—so the heart and bases of the leaves will be tender. However, in Provence, some restaurants also serve artichokes cru—raw. I have tried them raw, and I suppose it is an acquired taste that I have not developed. My neighbor in Provence, however, a market grower who is now deceased, loved to strip off the leaves, right in the garden, then slice up the heart with his knife.

I suggest cooking them first, and the simplest way is to steam them whole as I describe in the first part of my recipe here. Once steamed, you can gently separate the leaves to reach the heart, scoop out any thistles and small inner leaves, and fill the cavity with shrimp or a crab salad, for example. I also like to make a mixture of dried bread, parsley, garlic and minced tomato, well moistened with extra-virgin olive oil and vinegar, and stuff the cavity with that, as well as tucking some around the bases of the larger leaves. Or you may serve them simply steamed, accompanied by a vinaigrette, aioli or other sauce for dipping.

However you choose to cook them, now is the season to indulge in one of California’s singular vegetables. And the governor approves! Or at least the lieutenant governor. . .

WHAT’S IN SEASON in Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties

MARCH, APRIL, MAY

FRUITS

Blackberries

Early Cherries

Grapefruit

Kiwi

Kumquats

Lemons

Oranges

Raspberries

Strawberries

VEGETABLES

Artichokes

Asian Greens

Asparagus

Beets

Bok Choy

Broccoli

Cabbage

Carrots

Celery

Chard

Chives

Cress

Dandelion

Chicory

Endive

Fava Beans

Fennel

Garlic Scapes

Green Garlic

Herbs

Kale

Leeks

Lettuces

Mushrooms

Mustard

Nettles

Onions

Potatoes

Radicchio

Radish

Spinach

Turnips

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FIRE-ROASTED ARTICHOKES WITH YOGURT AND GREEN HERB DIP

Marinating the artichokes after steaming and before grilling gives them an extra flavor that enhances the grilling-and a little bit charred is OK.

Yield: 8 portions

INGREDIENTS FOR THE DIP

2 cups plain nonfat yogurt

1/4 cup minced fresh parsley

1 tablespoon minced fresh tarragon

1 tablespoon minced fresh chives

1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

TO PREPARE

In a bowl, combine together the yogurt, parsley, tarragon, chives, salt, pepper and lemon juice and stir to mix well. Taste and adjust seasonings as desired.

INGREDIENTS FOR THE ARTICHOKES

4 medium to large artichokes

1/2 lemon

1/2 cup minced flat-leaf parsley (about 1 bunch)

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

TO PREPARE

Working with one artichoke at a time, trim the stem even with the base. Snap off the small, tough leaves around base and trim the stub ends flush. Using a very sharp knife, cut off the upper third of the artichoke. Rub the cut surfaces with the lemon half to prevent browning.

Pour water into a steamer pan to a depth of about 3 inches, put the rack in place and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Place the artichokes, stem end up, on the rack, then reduce the heat to medium, cover and steam until the base of an artichoke offers little resistance when pierced with the tines of a fork, about 20 to 30 minutes. The timing will depend on the size and maturity of the artichokes.

Remove the artichokes from the steamer and set aside until cool enough to handle. With a sharp knife-I like to use a serrated one-cut the artichokes in half lengthwise. Then, using a spoon, scoop out the central leaves from each artichoke, removing the thistles and any furry bits.

In a bowl large enough to hold all the artichoke halves, combine the parsley, garlic, salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil. Add the artichokes, then gently turn several times to coat well. Set aside to marinate for at least 20 minutes, and up to 3 to 4 hours.

Prepare a fire in a charcoal grill or preheat a gas grill. When hot, place the artichokes, cut side up, on the grill and allow to sear, turning them to reach all the outer leaves, about 3 minutes total. Turn and sear the inside, about another 3 minutes. Remove to a platter and let cool to room temperature. Serve accompanied by the green herb dip.

Georgeanne Brennan is the author of more than 30 cookbooks and garden books. She lives in Winters, California, where she writes, cooks and runs her new business, La Vie Rustic. LaVieRustic.com

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