Spring Artichokes

These beautiful artichokes spoke to me as I passed amongst the merchants at the Sunday Farmers’ Market. They knew I had just purchased some Spring lamb chops and wanted to be part of my Valentine celebration dinner. So not wanting to disappoint them, I put them in my basket and brought them home. I can’t think of a better combination than grilled Spring lamb chops and artichokes.

The other reason, and more likely the true reason I bought artichokes and lamb, was that I’m sick of eating chicken and chard. As much as I like both chicken and chard I figured that if I’m treating myself to a special Valentine’s dinner it should be something new and exciting, something special.

Since I haven’t written about anything for a week or so, I decided that today was the day and since I had the beautiful artichokes to inspire me, they are the subject of today’s post.

ARTICHOKE HISTORY

Historically artichokes have been around since the middle of the 9th century. Modern scholar, Le Roy Laduire, in his book Les Paysans de Languedoc (1966) has documented the spread of the artichoke:

“The blossom of the thistle, improved by the Arabs, passed from Naples to Florence in 1466, carried by Filippo Strozzi. Towards 1480 it is noticed in Venice, as a curiosity. But very soon veers towards the north-west…Arctichoke beds are mentioned in Avignon by the notaries from 1532 onward; from the principle towns they spread into the hinterlands…appearing as carchofas at Cavallion in 1541, at Chateauneuf du Pape in 1553, at Orange in 1554. The local name remains carchofas, from the Italian carciofo…They are very small, the size of a hen’s egg…and are still considered a luxury, a vaguely aphrodisiac tidbit which one preserved in sugar syrup.” Preserved in a sugar syrup, really?

French immigrants brought them to the United States in 1806 when they settled in the Louisiana Territory. Though the first commercial artichoke fields were developed in Louisiana, by 1940 they had mysteriously disappeared. The Spaniards later established them in California in the Monterey area during the later 1800s and that’s where the two I bought today came from. Every Sunday Contreras Flowers, who also sells at the Palo Alto Farmers’ Market, brings flowers and “cool weather” vegetables, from the Moss Beach area, to our market here in Sacramento and while they don’t meet the 100 mile “local” criteria that is spoken so much about lately,  they definitely qualify as fresh having been picked just yesterday. Today, nearly 100 percent of the United States crop of artichokes is grown in California. Worldwide they are also cultivated in France, Italy, and Spain.

Here’s a bit of artichoke trivia I found.  It’s from the site, What\’s Cooking America by Linda Stradley.

“In the 1920s, Ciro Terranova “Whitey” (1889-1938), a member of the mafia and known as the “Artichoke King,” began his monopoly of the artichoke market by purchasing all the produce shipped to New York from California at $6 a crate. He created a produce company and resold the artichokes at 30 to 40 percent profit. Not only did he terrorize distributors and produce merchants, he even launched an attack on the artichoke fields from Montara to Pescadero, hacking down the plants with machetes in the dead of night. These “artichoke wars” led the Mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, to declare “the sale, display, and possession” of artichokes in New York illegal. Mayor La Guardia publicly admitted that he himself loved the vegetable and after only one week he lifted the ban.”

You can find more history and artichoke lore at What\’s Cooking America. There’s some very interesting reading here.

WHEN AND HOW TO BUY ARTICHOKES

The peak seasons for artichokes are spring and fall. You want to look for artchokes with a tight leaf formation, and those that feel heavy for their size. To test for freshness, press the leaves against each other and you should hear a squeaking sound. Browning of the tips can indicate age, but can also indicate frost damage.

Fall artichokes may be darker or bronze–tipped or have a whitish, blistered appearance due to exposure to light frost. This is called “winter-kissed” and many consider these frosted artichokes to have a more intense flavor and be the most tender.

Baby artichokes are not a separate variety but a “baby” version of larger artichokes. Their size comes from their location on the artichoke plant. They are picked from the lower parts of the artichoke plant where the plant fronds protect them from the sun, in effect stunting their growth. These tend to be the most tender and are most often more expensive than the regular mature artichokes.

COOKING THEM

Artichokes can be steamed, grilled or baked and can be added to just about anything from pizza to an omelet. Very often, they are served with sauces or herbed oils that the leaves can be dipped into.

Today I tried a nice recipe for grilled artichokes that I found in My Nepenthe by Romney Steele, a delightful cookbook and history of Nepenthe, an iconic historic restaurant on the California coast, that I received as a gift from a friend last year.

Grilled California Artichokes with Garlic Basil Aioli

(I didn’t serve them with the Garlic Basil Aioli but have included the recipe incase you want to try it. I really liked this recipe and will definitely try it again, next time I’ll try the  Garlic Basil Aioli too)

Serves 4 to 6

4 to 6 small or 3 large artichokes, stems trimmed

Juice of 1 lemon

1 to 3 tablespoons olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Handful arugula or mache (optional)

Garlic Basil Aioli (recipe follows), for serving

Lemon Wedges, for serving

Trim off the thorny tips of each artichoke and rub the cut ends with a little lemon juice. Place them cut side up in a steamer with ½ inch of water at the bottom. Steam the artichokes, covered, over medium heat, for 20 to 25 minutes, or until just tender (make sure that the water doesn’t run dry). Transfer them to a towel-lined plate to drain.

Heat a grill or grill pan over medium-high heat.

When the artichokes are cool, cut them in half and discard the thistly choke, leaving the heart intact. Drizzle the artichokes with the olive oil and fresh lemon juice and season with salt and pepper. Grill over a medium-high flame, turning on occasion, until well marked and warmed through, about 5 minutes.

Arrange on plates with a tussle of arugula and dollops of the aioli. Serve with lemon wedges and the remaining aioli in a bowl for dipping.

Garlic Basil Aioli

Makes about 1 cup

2 clocves garlic, peeled

Salt

1 egg yolk

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 teaspoon Dijon mustard

¼ cup vegetable oil

½ cup olive oil

White pepper

2 teaspoons finely chopped basil

With a fork mash the garlic with a pinch of slat until it makes a paste. Combine half the paste with the yolk, lemon juice and mustard in a large bowl. Combine the oils, then add a drop or two to the yolk mixture, whisking well to emulsify: Slowly add the remaining oil in a steady stream, whisking rapidly to combine. Add a pinch of white pepper and the remaining garlic to taste, if desired. Stir in the basil.

More Recipies

You can find more recipes on the Artichoke Advisory Board of California‘s site, Simply Recipes, posted by Elise on Apr 16, 2007 (how to cook and eat) and My Recipes from Southern Living, 2009 (fresh grilled artichokes).

How do you cook and eat artichokes? What are your favorite dipping sauces, that includes what kind of mayonnaise if that’s what you dip into?

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Satsumaimo or Japanese Sweet Potatoes

Strawberries weren’t the only things we bought at the Farmers’ Market on Sunday, although in Landon’s mind they were the only things that mattered. We also bought asparagus, snap peas, artichokes, green onions, Fuji apples and Japanese sweet potatoes.

Japanese sweet potatoes, or Satsumaimo, if you’re not familiar with them, have dark pink skin and cream-colored, slightly sweet flesh. I discovered these little gems at my local market a couple of years ago and have become a big fan, buying them whenever I find them. I like buying them when they are fairly small in size. I brought home four. Just enough for one meal of mashed potatoes and leftovers for fried potato cakes.

For dinner Sunday night, I paired the mashed Japanese sweet potatoes up with a nice steamed artichoke and a pork loin steak marinated with fresh sage leaves from my garden and rubbed with a little lemon and black pepper oil, then grilled to perfection.

To cook the sweet potatoes; I peel them and immerse them in water, to prevent them from browning, then cook them in simmering water until fork-tender, then mash them with some butter.  To fry the leftovers; make small 2 or 3” patties about ¼ “ thick and fry in olive oil until browned and crispy. These are so delicious. I love them paired up with grilled lamb chops and have converted quite a few fellow diners who were a little skeptical.

Next time you’re at the market look for Japanese sweet potatoes. You won’t be disappointed.

UPDATE:  12/14/2010

Here’s another way to use these beauties and this time it’s in pancakes for breakfast. Oh my were these good. Check out bitemekitchen.com for the recipe.

Winter Veggies at the Farmers Market

I recently found this article in The Huffington Post. It’s a good guide to winter vegetables having both pictures and recipes.

Winter Veggies at the Farmers Market

The Huffington Post 12/13/09

It’s easy to get stuck in a cooking rut of using the same ingredients and the same recipes again and again. If you shop at your local farmers’ market, however, you have a great opportunity to try something new. Most people think farmer’s markets are only for summer, but there are many that are open year round and offer great winter produce. Buy some fresh, seasonal produce and discover delicious new flavors. Here, our some picks for wonderful winter vegetables, complete with recipes you can make tonight.