Californian Artichokes at Home
I try to eat as locally and seasonally as possible. However, there are just some foods that will never be local that I’m not willing to give up. Artichokes are one of those foods. These Californian thistles are a favorite at my house.
Our preferred way to eat the artichoke is simply steamed (in the microwave, actually). Then, we just tear off the leaves and scrape the meat off with our teeth. Some would serve with a dipping sauce, melted butter, aioli or something else, but we usually just eat artichokes plain. There have plenty of flavor, and this simple presentation lets the nutty taste shine.
Another favorite recipe is braised artichokes, adapted from Michael Chiarello’s Tra Vigne Cookbook. These are similar to the marinated artichokes that you buy in a jar, but much, much better. These are best warm. The original recipe called a quantity of olive oil that I couldn’t quite get over. However, by substituting chicken broth for most of the oil, I eliminated the guilt and made something that tasted as rich as the original recipe.
Tra Vigne is a restaurant in St. Helena, California, in the Napa Valley. We’ve eaten them there several times over the past couple of decades, and it’s always been a treat. It was probably one of the first “fancy” restaurants that I experienced, so it has a very special place in my memory bank.
Our local farmstand had lots of frost-kissed artichokes on the seconds shelf. The outside of the artichokes were not so pretty, but, for this recipe, the outer leaves are stripped off and only the hearts are used. Also, at 50 cents apiece, they aren’t as costly as their less-blemished cousins.
With Howard as my helper, we set up a mini-assembly line (or should I say disassembly) to tear off the outer leaves, quarter and trim the artichokes, and scrape out the hairy choke. A big bowl of water, acidulated with the juice of a lemon, is the key tool in this process. The cut surfaces of an artichoke discolor quickly, so a dip in the lemon water after each cut, curbs this tendency. The other helpful tool is a grapefruit spoon, which works well for scraping the choke.
The artichokes are immersed in the lemony, garlicky, herby marinade and brought to boil on the stovetop. Then, they get transferred to a covered baking dish for an hour-long braise. The artichokes absorb the wonderful flavor from the marinade and become meltingly tender. They are to die for!
The braised artichokes go well with many things, as an appetizer or a side dish. I was inspired by the Italian theme of the recipe. I chose some recipes from The Essential New York Times Cookbook: Chicken Marengo and Italian Roasted Potatoes. Both were hits, especially the French fry-like potatoes. The potatoes were really crispy on the outside, and really fluffy on the inside. I salted them heavily while they were hot, and they were great!
Adapted from The Tra Vigne Cookbook.
2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
6 Tbsp chicken broth
¼ cup lemon juice
¾ tsp herbes de Provence
1½ tsp minced garlic
1½ tsp kosher salt
Pinch freshly ground pepper
Half a lemon + water
Preheat the oven to 375F. Combine the olive oil, chicken broth, lemon juice, herbes, garlic, salt and pepper in a medium saucepan.
Fill a medium bowl with water and squeeze the juice of half a lemon into the water. Trim the artichokes and quarter them: I’m right-handed, and hold the artichoke in my left hand. I bend back each leave, and, holding it against my left thumb, snap and tear the leave. When the leaves get too soft to snap, stop. Cut off the upper artichoke even with where you’ve been snapping the outer leaves (I seem to cut off the top half). Dip the top into the water. Trim the stem and dip the cut edge. Halve the artichoke. Drop one half in the bowl of water. Dip the cut edge of the other. Cut the half in half again to make two quarters. Drop one in the bowl and dip the cut edges of the other. Now use a knife or grapefruit spoon to scrape out the hairy choke. Place trimmed quarter in the pot with the marinade and coat (leave it there). Repeat with remaining quarters. Then, repeat with remaining artichokes.
After all the artichokes are trimmed, put the saucepan over high heat, and bring to a boil. Pour the artichokes and marinade into a baking dish, cover, and bake until artichokes are tender, about 1 hour. Remove from the oven.
Doubles and triples well.