The first person to figure out that an artichoke was edible was either very hungry, very clever, or both. Certainly they lived somewhere in the Middle East, as that’s where this edible flower originated. From there, the green spheres spread to Italy, France, and the rest of Europe. They were brought to this side of the globe by both French immigrants who settled in Louisiana and Spanish missionaries along the coast of California. Stuffed artichokes are still an important dish in New Orleans.
A perennial from the thistle family, almost all U.S. chokes are grown in California’s Mediterranean climate. They’re in season from March-June and are at their peak now. When I was a kid, we’d boil the big ones to a state of gray-green pallor and then dip their leaves in Best Foods mayonnaise, eating them as fast as we could, one after another, by inserting each leaf into our mouths and pulling it out again, while scraping the fleshy parts off on our top teeth. That’s still a fine way to consume them, but since then I’ve learned a thing or two from Italian cooks and now I prefer to braise them and serve them with fresh herbs and olive oil, and maybe a little lemon. My favorites are the babies, about 2 inches high. To prepare them for cooking the Italian way, you have to discard most of the artichoke, and it will seem wasteful, but it’s worth it. Just don’t forget to compost!
To prepare the artichokes: Cut off a sliver of the dry stem, leaving most of it intact and then cut the pointy top about 1/4 inch down for the 2 inch artichokes. Starting at the bottom and working your way up, bend back the dark green outer leaves, snapping them off at their bases until you get to the tender light green interior. Rub the artichokes with a cut lemon as you go so they don’t brown. Cook whole or cut as the recipe you’re following directs.
Baby Artichokes with Potatoes, Fresh Herbs, and Lemon
Serves 2 as a side dish or 4 as an appetizer
This recipe holds well and tastes even better at room temperature so it’s great picnic or party food. Add a little crumbed feta cheese for a nice variation.
1/4 cup olive oil
3 organic garlic cloves, sliced thinly
8 to 10 small artichokes, prepared as above and quartered
4 small organic yellow or gold potatoes, cut into eighths
2 teaspoons chopped fresh organic oregano or marjoram
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh organic mint
Organic lemon juice to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
In a medium skillet with a lid, warm the oil gently over medium low heat. Add the garlic and cook slowly, without letting it brown, until soft and fragrant, about 5 minutes. Raise the heat to medium, and add the artichokes, potatoes and a pinch of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables just begin to brown, about 5 minutes. Add about 1/4 cup water, lower heat to medium low, and partially cover. Cook for about 10 to 15 minutes until both the potatoes and artichokes are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste, stir in the herbs and remove from heat. Let cool slightly. Add lemon juice and adjust seasonings. Serve immediately or at room temperature within 2 hours.
Image: Darwin Bell