Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Thorny with a Big Heart

Who can resist the allure of an artichoke – the bud of a thistle flower? I was a freshman in college during my first spring in California, when a girl in my dorm came back from a trip downtown with a bag of artichokes. She got permission to use the roach infested kitchen – reserved for upperclassmen – to boil them and invited a few us to join her at the picnic tables outside the cafeteria, where we plucked and dipped the thorny leaves in Miracle Whip. The days were longer and I remember we stayed out there until dusk, leisurely stacking the damp discarded leaves like a deck of cards and fanning them out until the sun went down. Those days, it seemed we had all the time in the world.

Although I enjoyed my share of doughy Domino’s pizza, I often sought the nutty taste of artichokes. From March through May you could buy four for a dollar at the grocery store, and for twenty five cents I had dinner that lasted longer than a bowl of ramen. Soon, lemon juice and olive oil replaced the cloying mayonnaise, and of course, nothing was more rewarding than scooping out the fuzzy choke and biting into that warm meaty heart.

I didn’t know then that artichokes are a California commodity. The first farms were planted on a few acres near Half Moon Bay by Italian immigrants in the late 1800s. The cool foggy summers, mild winters and proximity to the ocean were the perfect growing climate, producing a heavy spring crop and a lighter fall crop that today provides nearly one hundred percent of the nation’s supply. It’s a labor-intensive plant requiring hand harvesting with a knife and tossing the buds into a sack that workers carry on their backs as they walk in between the rows. Attempts at developing thorn-free varieties that can be harvested year round have not been able to surpass the taste of the perennial Green Globe. So from now until May, we feast on artichokes – steamed, grilled, braised, fried, raw, buried under ashes or stuffed – nothing spells spring quite like it.

It wasn’t until I went to France that my whole-steamed method seemed archaic. I was given crates of artichokes to prep and watched wide-eyed as my fellow cooks stripped the silvery green suit of armor going straight for the heart, whacking away at great speed and amassing mountains of leaves. The shelves in the walk-in refrigerator held buckets of artichoke hearts with long trimmed stems like old fashioned champagne glasses floating in acidulated water. I learned to shred through cases but never stopped lamenting the waste of all those teaspoons of flesh at the base of each leaf. Later, working for a frugal chef, I boiled the leaves and scraped their ends to make a luscious puree with lemon, shallots and butter for an exquisitely simple rack of lamb.

Back in California, I waited for March and the first sign of my prickly crop to launch the spring menu. We paraded them in a butter lettuce salad with chunks of seared foie gras, in lemony broths poached with fish and saffron, on savory tarts with hazelnut butter and ricotta, and yes, we scrimped and scraped the leaves to fill ravioli. And when the first case of baby artichokes arrived, we braised them with carrots and pearl onions, dry white wine and bay leaves, to eat warm in a shallow bowl with good crusty bread – unhurried, like we had all the time in the world.

L’Amie Donia’s Braised Artichokes
Serves 4-6
2 carrots
½ pound pearl onions
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 bay leaf
2 sprigs of thyme
2 pounds baby artichokes or 6-8 medium artichokes
2 lemons and zest of one
¼ teaspoon saffron
5 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup dry white wine
Vegetable broth or water
1 tablespoon capers
1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley
-Peel the carrots and cut into ¼ inch slices. Peel the pearl onions and leave whole.
-Cut the stems of the artichokes and cut about ¾ inch off the tops, then break off 2 rows of leaves from the base and trim the bottoms. Gently spread the leaves of each artichoke and use a small spoon to remove the choke. Place in a bowl of cold water with the juice of one lemon.
-In a heavy saucepan, warm 4 tablespoons of olive oil over low heat. Slowly cook the carrots and onions until they begin to turn golden. Arrange the artichokes in the pan in a single layer. Add the bay leaf, fresh thyme, crushed garlic, the juice and zest of one lemon, saffron, and salt and pepper to taste.
-Pour the wine over the artichokes and add vegetable broth or water until they are just immersed. Cover and cook over medium heat for 15-20 minutes, then remove the lid, add capers, and reduce the cooking liquid over medium high heat. Use the tip of a paring knife to test the artichokes and remove from heat when they are tender.
-Sprinkle with parsley and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Serve warm in a bowl with good bread to mop up the juices, or as a side dish with roast lamb, rabbit, or fish.