Anyone who has worked with fresh artichokes knows they are members of the thistle family, handled with care. Actually the immature flower of the plant, they must be harvested young to be edible. They’ve been cultivated in Italy for at least 2 thousand years and were brought to America by Italian immigrants who settled along coastal northern California. Spring is artichoke season, with a second crop in early fall, and we are seeing them fresh from California in markets now. I saw a sign this week promoting their aphrodisiacal qualities, making them a great choice for Valentine’s Day.
When purchasing, choose artichokes with tightly closed heads, unblemished, and vibrant in color, whether green, purple, or a combination. Those that are beginning to open are over-ripe, with a more developed choke, the prickly center with thorn-like leaves. When very young, the heart is completely edible.
Artichokes can be trimmed and steamed whole, served with lemon butter. Larger ones can be stuffed with bread crumbs, chopped olives, garlic, and grated Parmesan cheese. Or add anchovies or cooked sausage to the mix, then steam. Trim the stem end, cut off the top third, remove any tough outer leaves, and trim remaining leaf tips to eliminate prickles, and immerse in acidulated water. Exposed to the air, artichokes will quickly oxidize, so rubbing the cut surfaces with half a lemon, and placing in water to which you’ve added ½ cup lemon juice will prevent browning. To remove the choke, use the tip of a spoon, and discard.
Baby artichokes are available now, pre-packed in hard plastic shells. Young and tender, they can be topped and trimmed, then halved lengthwise. Poach in olive oil with salt and pepper, a squeeze of lemon. A sprinkle of Parmesan and they are ready to serve. Or the tiny halves can be opened slightly and stuffed with chopped olives, minced garlic and parsley, then baked or poached. Once poached or lightly steamed, baby artichokes can be finished on the grill, brushed with garlic butter. Or they can be added to a pan of browning potatoes along with diced onion, minced garlic, and chopped kalamata olives. Try poaching them in 1 cup water and 1 cup dry white wine, sliced garlic, salt and pepper, and a pinch of dried red pepper flakes, simmering until tender. Serve in salads or as part of an antipasto course.
If fresh is too daunting, purchase the hearts packed in water or brine. Drained, they are ready to use without fuss.
Baked Artichoke Hearts
2 jars artichoke hearts in water or brine
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup diced onion
½ cup cream
1 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
¼ cup bread crumbs
2 tbsp. grated Parmesan
salt and pepper
pinch red pepper flakes
Soften the onion and garlic in butter. Add salt and pepper, red pepper flakes, and thyme. Stir in the hearts, and cream. Place in a buttered au gratin pan, and top with bread crumbs and grated cheese. Bake 20 minutes until bubbly and browned.