Lompoc is an agricultural Brigadoon, a place of eternal springtime where it's never too cold or too hot, and where a rich, loamy soil mixes with sand from the coastline's protected dunes to create a near perfect spongey and fertile substrate for the valley's lucky farmers. It makes perfect, delicious sense then that the aptly-named Suncoast Farms specializes in exploiting Lompoc's reliable microclimate, bringing all manner of edible flowers -- broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower to name a few -- to Southern California farmers markets from Santa Barbara to San Diego all year long.
Microclimates and geography do help, but even a region like Lompoc seems to burst when spring arrives, and mostly with artichokes. Suncoast's tables are groaning under the weight of gigantic purple artichokes right now. The nearly eight inches of sturdy stalk they leave on the dense, grapefruit-sized flowers turn the otherwise benign vegetables into blunt weaponry. Suncoast will always have artichokes, but not quite as big and flavorful as these. You can find them at many local markets, including Mar Vista, Venice, Santa Monica (Saturday), Hollywood, Pasadena and South Pasadena.
Suncoast gets a lot of flack for causing some seasonal confusion among the unaware at the markets. Even in the oppressive high heat of summer, they're able to bring tender stalks of asparagus to their tables. The most impressive indicator of something being amiss is the usually spring-only artichokes. Their small, vividly purple 'chokes in green strawberry baskets are so ubiquitous as to now be thought of as commonplace. It's all faultlessly legit and something every Angeleno could add to her own 50 Reasons Los Angeles Is the Best Effing City in America list.
Suncoast isn't the only purveyor of fantastic artichokes, especially this time of year. Finley Farms already has boxes of medium-sized, highly flavorful Imperials out and keep an eye on Tutti Frutti's tables for some eminently grillable varieties in the coming weeks.
When choosing your 'chokes, select for tightly-closed leaves that squeak a little when you squeeze the head. It should sound like rubber on rubber. Stalks, especially those left with foliage intact, can help identify a freshly harvested artichoke. All greenery should be firm, not flaccid. And it's ok if there's a little browning on the outside leaves. We've had slightly frosty weather heading into spring, weather that even parts of Lompoc couldn't entirely avoid. Brown splotches on outer leaves are usually frost damage and are only cosmetic. But take care to note if there are holes, which might indicate a burrowing visitor inside the flower.
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Steaming -- maybe with a bay leaf, some olive oil and lemons -- is the easiest, fail safe way to cook your artichokes, but if you're looking for something different head over to big 'choke grower Ocean Mist Farms. They have a how-to page that covers, baking, grilling, and braising. They're also the hosts of the annual Castroville Artichoke Festival (May 18-19 this year), and have more than enough expertise to get you from prep to table.
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