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Market Matters- Baked Artichokes

It’s artichoke season in California! So it’s down the hill and off the the Hollywood Farmers Market for this week’s Market Matters to amked baked artichokes.

While it’s true that in California artichokes are available throughout the year to varying degrees, peak season is from March to May with another flush of this thistle like flower in October. That means markets all across the US are filling up with gorgeous green globes right now.

It also means you should get your hands on some.

California pretty much supplies the entire U.S. with artichokes. Our central coast has the perfect climate for them to thrive. So we take the artichoke pretty seriously. So seriously that we started naming artichoke queens to be ambassadors for this tasty thistle way back in 1947 when a young woman named Norma Jean was crowned Castroville’s first ever Artichoke Queen. Yep, the artichoke launched the career of Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe.

I may not be a blond bombshell, but as a Californian I consider it my duty to sing the praises of this very important cash crop. Because a lot of good cooks get flustered when in the presence of artichokes. They are thorny and altogether a bit intimidating. So I’ll throw out a few guidelines on choosing, storing and prepping artichokes. Maybe the folks in Castroville will hear me and offer me Marilyn’s old crown. Who knows? A boy can dream, can’t he?

baked artichokesChoose globes that are dark green, heavy, and have “tight” leaves. They should make a scrunchy sound when lightly squeezed. The heavier the choke seems for its size, the fresher it is. Don’t select artichokes that are dry looking or appear to be turning brown. If the leaves appear too “open” then the choke is past its prime and the leaves may be tough and just too fibrous to enjoy.

Of course fresh produce is always best eaten as quickly as possible. But artichokes may be stored for up to a week sometimes in the refrigerator. Remember artichokes are flowers, so I often trim the stem end a tiny bit and put them in a vase of water either in the fridge or out on the counter where I can enjoy looking at them until I am ready to prepare them.

Prepping an artichoke is the main thing that intimidates people. But it’s not difficult. I got mine from the Hollywood Farmers Market. They are very fresh and organically grown. Which is a good thing. But it also means there are likely to be creatures hiding in between the leaves. Earwigs most notably. So start by tapping the choke upside down over the sink. This will remove anything that may have made your artichoke its home. Then rinse the choke under running water.

Here comes the tricky part. You may trim the stem off so it will sit upright on the plate. But I never do. The stem is some of the best eating! I trim the stem end, and then use a vegetable peeler to remove the fibrous exterior of the stem.

Next remove the really small leaves along the bottom of the choke and possibly some of the very large, leathery outside leaves. Some people cut the top inch or so off the choke to remove the thorny thistles. This method works but is a bit too indiscriminate for me. I like to use scissors to trim away just the sharp tips.

If, for presentation purposes you want to keep the choke whole you can pry the choke open a bit and spoon out the interior hoary thistle. But I usually cut the choke in half lengthwise and use a pairing knife, or stainless steel spoon to remove it. It’s much more effective. Either way prepared artichokes can be placed in a bowl of water with the juice of one or two lemons until you are ready to cook them. But again I don’t usually bother, because once cooked any discoloration goes away.

The most common way to heat artichokes is to steam them for an hour, then serve them with a dipping sauce like aioli or melted butter with a spritz of lemon.

But there are countless other ways to serve artichokes. I make a roasted artichoke bruschetta that I really like. Fried baby artichokes are a revelation. Stuffed and baked is a good way to go too.

But I like them baked or braised ”Roman Style” in the oven best of all. Carciofi alla romana, as this preparation is known in Italy, are earthy and amazingly textural. The method I follow comes from Judy Rodgers and her Zuni Café Cookbook. It is baked with a little liquid on a bed of onions with lemon slices, olives and herbs. Sometimes I use mint, sometimes rosemary. Either way is great and the onions come out nicely flavored and are great scooped up with crusty bread or tossed with pasta and served alongside the artichoke.

Baked Artichokes with Onions, Lemon, Kalamata Olives & Rosemary

serves 4 CLICK here for a printable recipe

  • 2 pounds thinly sliced sweet yellow onions
  • 3/4‑cup olive oil
  • sea salt
  • 3 garlic cloves, slivered
  • 1/2‑cup Kalamata olives, pitted & rinsed
  • 1 T fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
  • 1 lemon, thinly sliced
  • 1/4 c dry white wine
  • 4 bright green, tightly closed artichokes, 3 1/2 inches in diameter
  • water, as needed
  • crusty bread or cooked pasta, optional

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Toss the onions with about 1/2 cup of the olive oil and about 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt, add the garlic, olives, and rosemary.

Toss the lemon slices with the onion mixture, add the white wine, and set aside to let the onions soften and “weep” their moisture while you trim the artichokes.

Trim the bottom of the stem of each artichoke slightly, leaving as much as possible attached, then carefully peel the stalk. Remove badly damaged or dry outer leaves. Trim the thorns with scissors or slice them off with a sharp paring knife. Cut the artichoke in half, and then use a stainless steel spoon or paring knife to carve under and remove the thistly choke, leaving the meaty bottom intact. Rinse in cold water; don’t drain well– a little water between the leaves helps ensure that the artichokes cook thoroughly and evenly.

Sprinkle the artichokes with salt, squeezing and folding them so some salt falls between the leaves. Drizzle and rub with the remaining olive oil to coat thoroughly, and then squeeze the halves so you can trickle and rub some oil between the leaves.

Spread the juicy onion mixture about 1 1/2 inches deep in a large, flameproof baking dish (such as a 10- by 14-inch lasagna pan). The liquid should be about 1/2 inch deep; if not, add a little water. Nestle the artichokes cut side down in the bed of onions. They will be crowded.

Cover tightly– first with parchment paper, then foil, dull side out– and bake until you can easily pull out a second-tier leaf and the pulp at its base is tender. This usually takes about 1 1/2 hours; the exact size of the artichokes, as well as the baking dish and oven performance, will affect the cooking time. Be aware that the outermost layer of leaves will emerge a little leathery, but tasty and edible.

Once a test leaf is tender, raise the oven temperature to 400 degrees F, uncover, and bake for about 15 minutes longer to concentrate the flavors and lightly brown the tips of the vegetables. Serve hot, warm, or cold, as is, or with homemade mayonnaise flavored with lemon, garlic, or a few chopped anchovy fillets. Include some good crusty bread for scooping up the onion mixture, or toss the onions with some cooked pasta to serve on the side.

Note: These are even better after a night in the refrigerator as they get even silkier.

SERIOUS FUN FOOD

Greg Henry

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