We're hard-pressed to think of a more primal springtime food than the artichoke. Favas, maybe, with their gravid bean-filled pods, which showed up this week at the Hollywood market (Valdivia Farms). But after a winter full of braised chard, roasted root vegetables, and various brassicas cooked myriad ways, pulling up to a plate with a giant flower on it just screams springtime. The bonus is that the artichoke, in all its sizes and colors, is also pretty damn delectable.
Let's own up to something here. You can buy artichokes year round at any local market that is lucky enough to have Suncoast Farms on their vendor list. Their fields out in Lompoc are in this miraculous little microclimate where it is spring year round. No joke. Their giant, nutty Big Heart artichokes are almost always piled high on their tables. Same with the richly purple baby 'chokes they sell in plastic strawberry baskets. The Big Hearts will set you back a bit, clocking in at almost $4 per. But you won't find a more gargantuan, or more reliable local supply anywhere else. And if you're an artichoke lover, you'll probably fork over the cash.
The rest of the local artichoke growing world isn't as fortunate, weather-wise, and has to wait for spring to come to them. Recent cold snaps may have browned up the outer leaves a bit, but the increasing artichoke supply, along with variety is still a very welcome change. Very few seem willing to enter into Suncoast's Big Heart dominion, though. Instead you'll find slightly smaller Imperial Stars, Green Globes, and the occasional pile of super spiny, violet-colored heirlooms from the South Central Farmers Cooperative.
Brown, frost-bitten leaves aren't a bad thing. It just means it's a less pretty 'choke. All those petals do a great job of protecting what really matters: the heart. What you want to avoid are floppy, rubbery, unfirm heads. The leaves should squeak a little when you squeeze them and they should be firmly enclosed around the heart, variety depending. There are a couple of ways to trim them up for cooking.
For the giant Big Hearts, we prefer to completely hollow out the center down to the heart, creating a convenient bowl for your dipping sauce of choice. Cutting them in half and rubbing the exposed areas with a lemon before cooking is fine, too. For smaller artichokes, trim off the thicker outer leaves, clip off any spine points, and scoop out the fuzzy proto-thistle inside. Steaming is the most popular method, but chef Ricardo Zarate of Mo-Chica and winner of Food and Wine's 2011 People's Best New Chef Award for the Pacific region gave us this simple recipe for grilled baby 'chokes. A great excuse to dust off the Weber and fire up the coals.
Grilled Baby Artichokes with Aji Amarillo, Honey, Lemon Dressing
From: Chef Ricardo Zarate, Mo-Chica
One dozen baby artichokes, trimmed
Salt and pepper to season
1. Cut the artichokes in half and remove the inedible innards (the thistle and thin inner leaves).
2. Quickly brush the inside with olive oil and season it with the salt and pepper. Grill until slightly brown and fully cooked
For the dipping vinaigrette:
¼ cup honey
1 tbs. aji amarillo paste (or substitute with any chili paste)
¼ cup lime juice
¼ cup olive oil
1. Whisk together all the ingredients until emulsified. Serve with the artichoke halves.