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Seasonal Eats: Artichokes

ArtichokesAs happy as we are to order artichokes from restaurant menus, and as excited as we are to see them at Greenmarkets, they rarely seem to wind up in our grocery baskets.  That’s because the spiny, edible flowers can be awfully intimidating to deal with at home.  Actually the bud of a plant from the thistle family, this ancient Mediterranean vegetable has a complex, largely inedible outer structure.  The tender heart is encased by a sheath of sharp hairs called the choke, which is further surrounded by a tight formation of fleshy, purplish-green petals.  Which brings us back to their seemingly intimidating nature, at least to the home cook!

Today, California provides almost 100% of the U.S. crop, with Castroville in Monterey, billing itself as the “Artichoke Center of the World” (Marilyn Monroe was declared their first Artichoke Queen in 1948!).  These are the classic green globes that mostly dominate the local market, but we’re starting to see a number of unique varieties popping up as well.  There’s the oblong, wine-colored “Siena” from central Italy, a small artichoke with a heart tender enough to be eaten raw.  The “Fiesole” artichoke is bred from a purple variety native to southern France, with a fruity flavor and tender stalk that requires brief steaming.  Light red and only roughly one inch in diameter when fully grown, the tiny “Anzio” is a relative of the Romanesco artichoke from the Lazio region of Italy.  Like many baby artichokes, Anzio’s can be cooked and eaten whole.

SONY DSCSo how are a few of New York’s best restaurants utilizing the spring/summer staple?  In Manhattan, Michael White’s brand new steakhouse, Costata, offers artichokes as the ultimate side, fried until crisp and brightened with lemon juice and parsley.  EMP alum, Bryce Shulman, pairs them with Seared Brook Trout and Lovage at his new Midtown spot, Betony, and they’re served braised at Willow Road, in a seasonal, Sardinian-style salad with fregola, favas and lemon.  The large-format restaurant, Feast, showcases artichokes as part of their “Farmer’s Market Menu,” stuffed with a sprightly, vegetable-studded tabbouleh.  And in Brooklyn, the seasonally inspired small plates eatery, Colonie, presents artichokes alongside duck eggs, spelt, and maitake mushrooms.  But the 70-year-old Gravesend pizzeria, L&B Spumoni Gardens, offers our favorite dish of all… Baby Artichokes whole-roasted and glossed with good Olive Oil and a sprinkling of fine Parmesan Cheese.  They’re almost good enough to make us forget about their famous, Sicilian style pies.

artichokes-in-potAnd while though it’s tempting to let restaurants do all the work for you, it would be a shame to pass up a prime specimen at the farmer’s market.  And no matter what the variety, the guidelines for selecting an ideal artichoke remain the same.  For example, a fresh artichoke should feel heavy for its size and squeak when squeezed.  Always choose globes with a tight leaf formation and a true color — browning of the tips can indicate age as well as frost damage.  Of course, any artichokes that are wilting, drying or have mold should be strictly avoided.  And to store fresh artichokes at home, just sprinkle them with a little water and refrigerate in an airtight plastic bag.  Do not wash before storing.  Hearty, healthy artichokes should last for almost a week when handled properly.

So now that you’ve taken a leap of faith by purchasing the inimitable artichoke, what the heck do you do with it?  The most basic preparation is to snip the thorned tips off the end of the leaves, trim the stem and cut an inch off the top.  Steam the artichoke for 25-45 minutes (or until you can easily pull off the outer leaves),  in water that’s been slightly acidified with vinegar or lemon juice to prevent discoloration.  To eat, dip the leaves in melted butter or aioli, scraping off the tender flesh with your teeth.  After discarding the scratchy choke, the tender heart at the center can be enjoyed in its entirety.

2009_05_12-stuffedartichoke1Another popular use for artichokes is to cut them into halves or quarters and deep-fry them, better known as Carciofi alla Giudia, or Jewish-Style artichokes.  In Spain, artichokes are often sautéed with garlic and folded into Paella, or combined with eggs in a Tortilla.  And a long-time staple in Greece, artichokes are the star of a savory Stew made with potatoes, carrots, onion, lemon and dill.  Referring to the ancient city of Constantinople, it’s called Aginares a la Polita, or Artichokes City-Style.  Of course, the Stuffed Artichoke is an international classic.  Combine breadcrumbs, garlic, oregano, parsley and grated cheese for an Italian version, or lamb, pine nuts, raisins and mint for a Middle Eastern twist.  Push your mixture into the spaces at the base of each leaf and into the center before boiling or steaming.

So don’t shy away the next time you’re confronted at the market with a ferociously armored artichoke.  Because with just a little bit of patience and care, you’ll be duly rewarded with one of the tastiest treats of the summer season!

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L&B Spumoni Gardens
2725 86th Street, btwn. W.10th & 11th Sts.
(718) 449-1230

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