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Romancing the Artichoke

Produce expert James shares why the unpredictability of artichokes drives him a little crazy this time of year. Learn how this lovely thistle always prevails in winning his heart.

I have a personality quirk that emerges every year at the start of the artichoke season. Right around February I get it in my head that it is time for artichokes to be available and no amount of weather, historical data or calm reasoning can dislodge the notion. Fact is, availability does begin to increase around February as desert production near Coachella in Southern California starts to come on line. But conventional wisdom says the true season is much later in the spring and no matter how I attempt to impose my will, artichokes and Mother Nature will inevitably wear me down.I think part of the reason I have a thorny relationship with artichokes is because they are only a few generations away from a wild plant. Part of the thistle family, artichokes (and their larger plant cousin, Cardone) seem at times to be just too wild and free to be consigned to a predicable “cultivated” existence alongside neat rows of other, better behaved vegetables. If an artichoke was a person, it would be a romantic and sometimes I wish they were. Mystery, spontaneity and unpredictability are all characteristics I love in family and friends — not so much so with vegetables.

It is no surprise that the majority of U.S. commercial production is centered along the California central coast as soil type and growing conditions are very similar to where artichokes are grown successfully in other parts of the world. I’m certain driving by the fields every day along the coast is one of the reasons I have such high expectations of them. Artichoke plants can grow in surprisingly poor soil conditions but are very sensitive to climate — overly wet or cold conditions can prevent harvest or damage the crop. Late frosts will cause the outer layer of the artichoke to peel; this “frost kissing” does not affect the flavor at all but the appearance make them much harder to sell.

Artichokes are grown all over the world and are an integral part of many food cultures. Particularly in those countries that border the Mediterranean and over the years new varieties have been introduced here in the U.S. to test their viability. One recent success is the Lyon (pronounced “Lee-on,” with a French accent if you want to sound romantic). The Lyon is flatter and rounder than the more common Green Globe variety but has a wonderful nutty flavor and unusually large heart. They are available throughout April and into May, weather permitting, and are often cut with a longer stem (which is also edible). They have become a favorite for me, and I use them in my go-to spring dinner:Cream of Artichoke Soup3 large or 5 medium artichokes1 medium yellow onion, finely choppedOlive oil28 oz low sodium chicken (or vegetable) stockPinch of nutmeg2 oz heavy cream (optional and to taste)Salt and pepper to tasteSteam the artichokes enough that the leaves can be removed easily (25 to 35 minutes depending on size). Allow to cool and 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. I also use a spoon to scrape the flesh off of the leaves. 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 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 and gently reheat. Serve with warm crusty bread (I like sourdough), a nice green salad, and a small piece of fish (I do a pan-fried Tilapia).

By early April, I will have been angry and frustrated with artichokes for the better part of two months. Most folks in the office know to wait until after the last frost to remind me how much I love this plant and how it reminds us every year that you can strive to understand nature but you can never control it. And like friends or family, passions can run high when things don’t turn out the way that you think they should. But by mid-April, all will be forgiven and I will be back in love with this wild, unpredictable thistle.Many thanks to Bob Flood for contributing to this post

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