Back in 1988 I thought I knew everything about produce. At the ripe old age of 26 I had already spent a third of my life plying the trade so, of course, there was nothing anyone could teach me. At the time, Whole Foods Market had just six stores - five in Texas and a new one in New Orleans (acquired through a merger with what was then called the Whole Food Company). We had just signed leases on two new stores - one in Richardson, Texas and the other in Palo Alto, California - our first store out west. I was produce team leader at our Dallas store and was drawn to Palo Alto because much of the organically grown produce we sold in Texas was grown around the Bay Area. I always remember the Palo Alto store during springtime because what saved me from my own insufferable arrogance was not a person but an item - artichokes taught me I did not, in fact, know everything about produce.
Twenty years ago in Texas, the artichoke was something of a non-item, relegated to specialty sections in the produce department. Occasionally, some grocery store would go out on a limb and promote them but, after a few days, the artichokes would dry up and the remaining pathetic specimens would migrate back to the area in the produce department reserved for misunderstood fruits and veggies. Thus was my "educated" mindset on opening day in Palo Alto in the spring of 1988 - my first experience serving the California customer I thought I knew.
In our shiny new store I built my neatly set specialty section with exactly 12 artichokes on display (1/2 a case). We opened at 9am and by 9:15 I was putting up the other half of the case. By 10am those were gone and I spent the rest of the day apologetically telling more than a few customers we were sold out - most of them understood but gave me that "you're not from here, are you?" look. The next day one case turned into five (gone by noon), five turned into ten for Friday (gone by 4pm) and by the weekend I had 50 cases on hand and 15 cases on display - along with a nicely trimmed ego and a new notion that maybe customers in California were different from those in Texas.
Becoming a resident of Northern California, I also fell in love with artichokes. Around the time the first early chokes come out of the fields in Castroville (about 100 miles south of San Francisco), the winter/spring rains are just about finished and the hills that are normally dry and brown most of the year are a lush green. By mid-April we are also past the time where we are at risk of frost (the exterior surface of artichokes are extremely delicate) so artichoke growers here are safe from the "frost kissing" effects on their crop. There is also significant production in the deserts of Southern California but I'm a romantic, preferring the artichokes that come from the rolling hills closer to my home.
The season for artichokes will vary from year to year and is very weather dependent. A cold, rainy winter can slow growth and delay harvests. In general, desert chokes will start in late February followed by Northern California production in late March/early April. The spring season is generally finished by late May and there is a much smaller fall season as well (September to October). When selecting, you should always look for firm artichokes that are not dehydrated. Also look for thick stems (the heart is generally 1 1/2 times the diameter of the stem so the thicker the stem the bigger the heart).The most common way artichokes are prepared at my house is a simple steaming (30-40 minutes depending on the size) but artichokes can be stuffed and baked, roasted, or marinated and braised. My very favorite springtime dish comes peak season when multiple artichokes are reasonably priced - there is nothing I would rather eat more than cream of artichoke soup. Here's how to make it:Cream of Artichoke Soup
3 large or 5 small artichokes
1 medium white onion, finely chopped
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
28 oz low sodium chicken stock)
2 oz heavy cream (optional
Steam the artichokes until the leaves can be removed easily (25 to 35 minutes depending on size). Let cool. then remove the leaves (and save for dipping in vinaigrette or flavored mayonnaise) and scoop out and discard the “choke” (the fuzzy inedible interior layer that eventually becomes the flower). 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, about 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 1/3. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Mix in a blender until smooth and creamy. Add cream, if using, and salt to taste. Reheat gently and serve with warm crusty bread (I like sourdough).My thanks to Bob Flood and Dave Haglund for contributing to this post.