All choked up

jumbos at LongosThey’re big, they’re beautiful and they’re a pain to prepare. Why bother? Because artichokes are a rite of spring, and because the meaty, mineral-rich heart hidden deep within their armoured leaves make it (almost) worth the effort.

Of course, as soon as I decided to write about this edible thistle I couldn’t find any medium-sized chokes to cook. I did find huge green globes, the type you cook and eat by dipping the end of each leaf in sauce then scraping it between your teeth to extract the bump of tender, nutty-tasting pulp.

Puzzled, I called Ocean Mist in Castroville, Calif., artichoke capital of the world. Senior sales manager Bob Polovneff confirmed that, yes, ’tis peak season for artichokes, but said the crop was delayed until the end of March and it was so hot the unruly perennials sent up more jumbo chokes than usual.

The good news, he says, is that trucks loaded with medium-sized chokes have just arrived in Toronto and we should see more of all sizes over the next month, maybe even a few no-fuss baby chokes to shave into salad.

Polovneff recommends cooking a few artichokes at a time and storing in a plastic bag in the fridge, ready to reheat for a minute in the microwave. Serve large ones with your choice of dip, from salsa to olive-oil balsamic.

Enjoy fresh, healthy California artichokes now, then wait for the fall crop of Ontario babies.

Buy and Store

  •  Choose firm, heavy artichokes with compact leaves.
  • Store loosely covered in the crisper for several days.
  • Store cooked artichokes in a plastic bag for up to a week.
  • Frozen baby artichokes are a great alternative

Prep

Large artichokes:

  • Rinse under running water.
  • If leaves are thorny, cut off tips horizontally with scissors.
  • Remove stem so it stands up.
  • Bake, steam, boil or microwave until base is tender when pierced with a knife.
  • Serve whole, letting guests pluck and dip their own leaves, or remove large leaves and pile around a dish of dip. Draw a leaf through your teeth to eat the nubble of pulp.
  • When you reach the choke, remove the pale, spiky leaves tinged with violet and scrape off the layer of silk beneath to reveal your prize — the grey-green heart. Cut into pieces and dip.

Medium artichokes :

  • Snap off squeaky, leathery green outer leaves into a big bowl (discard) until you reach the thin, green-yellow inner leaves.
  • Discard brown end of stem and peel the rest — it’s a delicious extension of the heart.
  • Rub with half a lemon as you work to prevent browning.
  • With serrated knife, cut off top 1 inch (2.5 cm) of cone.
  • Cut around the cream-coloured base with paring knife to remove all dark green bits. Cut artichoke in half lengthwise. Remove layer of fluff where it meets the heart and pull out tough inner (sometimes purple) leaves.
  • Cook, then use in pasta, salads and pizza, grilled vegetable kebabs, etc.
  • Deep-fried Roman-style at Mistura restaurant

    Deep-fried Roman style at Toronto’s Mistura restaurant. Scrumptious!

Steam: Bring 2 inches (5 cm) water to a simmer in large pot. Fit with steamer basket, place trimmed artichokes inside. Cover and steam until hearts are tender when pierced with a knife or leaves pull out easily, 45 minutes to 1 hour.

 Microwave: Remove stem from 2 large artichokes and place stem-up in baking dish with 1/4 cup (60 mL) water. Cover with lid or plastic wrap and cook on High about 10 minutes or until cake tester goes through base easily without resistance. Let rest 4 minutes. Smaller chokes will take less time. Do not overcook.

For recipes and videos, visit oceanmist.com/artichokes .

Braised artichokes (2)

Braised artichokes in tomato sauce

Adapted from Bon Appétit, this delicious dish is great as an appetizer or tossed with pasta.

4 anchovies in oil, drained

3 garlic cloves, chopped

1/2 cup lightly packed mint leaves

2 tbsp + 1/4 cup  olive oil

398 mL can plain diced tomatoes

3/4 cup dry white wine

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tsp salt

1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

4 or 5 medium artichokes, rinsed

1 lemon, halved

For pesto, pulse anchovies and garlic in mini food chopper until finely chopped. Add mint and pulse until coarsely chopped. Add 2 tbsp (30 mL) oil and process to a coarse paste. Set aside.

In a Dutch oven, place tomatoes, wine, 1 1/2 cups water, remaining 1/4 cup oil, salt and red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil over high heat then lower heat to a simmer.

To prepare artichokes, snap off dark green outer leaves until you reach the tender green-yellow leaves. With serrated knife, cut off top inch of cone and remove brown part of stem. As you work, rub cut ends with lemon to prevent browning.

Cut around base with paring knife to remove all dark green bits; peel stem. Cut artichoke in half lengthwise. Cut out fluffy layer where it meets the heart and pull out spiky inner leaves. Rub pesto all over artichoke halves and place in a single layer in tomato mixture.

To maintain colour and keep submerged, cover with a plate slightly smaller than the pot.

Simmer 1 hour, turning once, until hearts are fork-tender and sauce is thick. Transfer to a serving dish and spoon sauce over top.

Makes 4 servings.

Published in the Toronto Star April 13, 2016

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