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Peak Pick: Artichokes

My co-worker, Chris Ford, is a great chef. Both of us share a passion for food and can speak eloquently about whatever seasonal item strikes our fancy, but Chris is a bolder, more adventurous cook. Also far more patient – he once described the steps he takes to produce a red wine and herb reduction that sounds delicious but would never survive an impulsive, impatient chef like me. These days the topic occupying our kitchen chats and afternoon musings is spring vegetables. Domestic asparagus is starting, as are spring onions and garlic, with my favorite spring vegetable, artichokes, soon to follow. The dialogue mostly revolves around some of our favorite springtime dishes; his is a lemon-braised artichoke heart; mine a cream of artichoke soup. I’m buying artichokes for our stores this spring and I have to say the romance I feel for this vegetable has taken a bit of a hit so far. This is not a dig on artichoke growers, mind you; I have a lot of respect for the difficulty of their jobs. It’s just for a plant that is essentially a thistle (nice word for “weed”), it is extremely delicate and temperamental.  Part of this has to do with the time of year artichokes are harvested. Most folks think of springtime as a wonderful time of rebirth. The truth is springtime weather can be the most volatile of the year for farmers (particularly during El Niño years). Excessive rainfall can overwhelm artichokes and cause the buds to brown around the edges of the petals. Late frost is also a danger for artichokes whose delicate exterior surface layers will literally peel away (a condition known as frost kissing). But by mid-April, the weather generally stabilizes and for a few short weeks artichokes become abundant and reasonably priced. Here’s Chris’ recipe for Lemon-Braised Artichoke Hearts: 1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil 1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh thyme leaves 1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt Small pinch freshly ground pepper 4 medium to large artichokes 1/2 lemon Preheat the oven to 375°F. Combine the olive oil, lemon juice, thyme, garlic, salt and pepper in a medium nonreactive saucepan. Mix well and set aside while preparing the artichokes. Snap outer leaves from an artichoke. Cut off the top half, and then use a paring knife to trim down to the heart, rubbing cut surfaces with the lemon half as you work to avoid discoloration. Cut the heart in half and scrape out the choke with a spoon. Cut each piece in half again. As each artichoke heart quarter is completed, immediately turn it in the marinade to coat completely. When all the artichokes are trimmed, put the pan over high heat and bring to a boil. Pour the artichokes and marinade into a baking dish (or cook them in the saucepan if it is ovenproof), cover with foil and cook until the artichokes are tender when pierced with a fork, about 45 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool in the cooking liquid. If preparing a larger number of artichokes, just increase the marinade proportionately. There are numerous ways to serve these artichokes. They are perfect as an appetizer salad on their own with their braising liquid. Make sure to have crusty bread on hand to sop up the juices. You can also slice or roughly chop and scatter across a cheese pizza. Be sure to drizzle some of the braising liquid on the pizza as well. Try roughly chopping and adding to a risotto at the last minute just to heat through. Add some of the braising liquid, too, to flavor the risotto. Season a nice piece of fish with salt and pepper and place on top of the artichokes to cook with them the last 10 to 15 minutes of their cooking time. Drizzle with olive oil just before serving. Here’s my Cream of Artichoke Soup recipe: 3 large or 5 small artichokes 1 medium yellow onion finely chopped Olive oil 28 oz low sodium chicken (or vegetable) stock Pinch of nutmeg 2 oz heavy cream (optional) Salt and pepper to taste Steam the artichokes long enough so that the leaves can be removed easily (25 to 35 minutes depending on size), allow to cool. Remove the leaves and the “choke” (the fuzzy inedible interior layer that eventually becomes the flower), leaving the heart and stem. The stems can also be used but you should trim off the exterior, stringy layer. Set aside. Chop onions and sauté with olive oil in a 4-quart pot, taking care not to burn, until soft and translucent (5 minutes). Add the artichoke hearts and stems along with the nutmeg, pepper and chicken stock. Cook over low heat until liquid is reduced by a third. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Mix in a blender until smooth and creamy. Add cream and salt to taste and reheat. Serve with warm crusty bread (I like sourdough). In a few weeks our office will be swimming in artichoke samples – mainly vendors showing different ways of packaging but also different varieties of artichokes (there is a variety called the Lyon I am anxious to try). When they arrive we plan to make a big batch of both recipes for the office as we welcome spring to Northern California. Both these recipes take some effort but the reward at the end is worth it. What’s your favorite artichoke recipe? Many thanks to Chris Ford and Ha Lam (photos) for contributing to this post.