All choked up!
Mar./Apr. 2009 California Country magazine
By Andy Powning
The artichoke, a perennial member of the thistle family, has a long and colorful history.
We’re in the midst of prime artichoke time!
Artichokes are unopened flower buds—who knew? If left to blossom, they open to a large, deep blue bloom. Mature plants have serrated, gray-blue leaves surrounding central stalks that feature one large artichoke, with offshooting stems producing smaller buds.
Ancient Romans cultivated the artichoke, a perennial member of the thistle family. Catherine de Medici took them from Italy to France in the 16th century when she became queen. French colonists brought the ’choke stateside to Louisiana and Italian immigrants settling in Half Moon Bay 100 years ago completed the trip to California.
The Green Globe variety, featuring a meaty, heavy heart and high-yielding bracts (outer petals of the actual artichoke), is most prevalent and thrives in cool coastal climes from Pescadero through Watsonville. There are also newer, desert varieties, bred to grow in warmer weather to extend the season.
When buying, select fresh ’chokes heavy for their size. Best are compact, tightly closed heads. To prepare, trim the bottom of the stem and outer leaves and snip the pointed ends off the remaining bracts with scissors. Cut the top inch off each bud and, with a spoon, scoop out the fuzzy interior.
Before cooking, place ’chokes in acidified water to preserve their color (one tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice per quart of water). Boil in a non-reactive pan, covered, at medium heat for 30 minutes or until soft. Some people place a plate on top to keep them submerged.
If you’ve never eaten an artichoke, it’s an adventure. Simply pull off each bract, dip in lemon butter or mayonnaise, place between your teeth and scrape the meaty lower part off. Delicious! When you get to the literal heart of the matter, the eating is pure, tender pleasure.
It's always harvest time in California! Here are four more options to join artichokes on the list of early spring favorites.
Leeks: Easily bypassed, this cousin of garlic and onion has a more mild-mannered flavor. Choose bright, crisp-leafed leeks with a high ratio of white shank to green leaf. Leeks may have dirt between layers. To prepare, trim roots and cut most of the leaf off, then score 2 inches down both crosswise and lengthwise from the top. Holding the bottom of the leek, submerge cut tops into a bowl of water and move them vigorously up and down for efficient cleaning. From there, try making potato leek soup or simply sauté chopped leeks long and slow in butter until meltingly tender. They make a terrific side dish paired with pork, beef or poultry.
Strawberries: It is actually a fairly good time of year for strawberries, before late spring heat spikes, which can badly affect quality, shelf life and flavor. Serve sliced with a touch of sugar, thinly sliced mint and a squeeze of citrus. Minneola tangelos or Meyer lemons are excellent selections for this.
Fennel: This is a fine early spring selection, often overlooked. When purchasing, select succulent bulbs, heavy for their size. For a simple, delicious salad, slice fennel and apples super thin, marinate in olive oil, lemon juice and zest, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Or try it baked. Quarter fennel bulbs, blanch in boiling water for 5 minutes and drain. Place in a baking dish, dot with butter, cover with grated Parmesan cheese, add 1/2 inch stock, cover and bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes. Yum!
Thyme: With herbs, fresh is always best, and this is a good time of year to find tender, lush bunches. A mint family member, thyme is perennial herb, native to the Mediterranean. Tiny grayish-green leaves pack a pleasing punch and figure prominently in the seasoning of many cuisines. Thyme pairs well with just about any protein or veggie. Try softening some butter and mixing in fresh chopped thyme leaves. A knob of this melted over steamed carrots, cauliflower or peas, or on a fillet of fish, and they'll be asking for your secret.
Andy Powning is a produce specialist with GreenLeaf, a San Francisco-based produce company. Send questions or comments to him at email@example.com.