BY ASHLEY GARTLAND
Artichokes, to be sure, are intimidating. With their fibrous stems and tough, spiny leaves, these edible thistles aren’t exactly a farmer’s market favorite. Nestled in baskets between inviting heirloom tomatoes and ready-to-eat sugar snap peas, they quickly pale in comparison to other seasonal picks. Add to that the fact that they start to turn black when they come into contact with air, iron, or aluminum, and it’s understandable that we tend to toss our artichokes in the steamer basket—or avoid them entirely.
But to spend artichoke season—which began in May or early June and continues through mid-fall—alternately ignoring them or boiling them into submission would be to waste their versatile flavor. Osteria La Spiga’s Executive Chef Sabrina Tinsley discovered that versatility while living in Italy after spending years eating them one way: boiled.
“I never preferred them when I was young. My mom would boil them and we’d peel off the leaves and dip them in lemon butter. It was kind of messy and greasy and I don’t think that I really understood the flavor of artichokes at that point,” she says. “But when I got to Italy and started to understand how versatile artichokes were and what an amazing flavor they have, I was hooked and started experimenting with them on many different levels.”
Those experiments have included frying baby artichokes to serve for a crunchy mixed vegetable salad, stuffing them with peas, parsley, and parmesan, and puréeing them to use in a tortellini filling.
Tinsley isn’t the only local chef with an artichoke crush. Chef Renée Erickson of Boat Street Café enjoys them braised with preserved lemons, olive oil, wine, and herbs and baked into a gratin with parmesan and butter; not surprisingly, given her Boat Street Pickles line, she’s also pickled them with garlic and peppercorns. Over on Whidbey Island, The Inn at Langley’s Chef Matt Costello takes a different approach, blitzing artichokes into pesto or puréeing them to use as a base for gnocchi or in a broken vinaigrette.
Artichoke’s unique flavor and texture—one Erickson describes as having herby undertones with a slightly fatty quality—makes for possible pairings ranging from simple pantry staples to spices. Erickson says they take olive oil and salt and acid really well while Costello occasionally steps outside the box with pairings like bacon, cloves, and cardamom.
Tinsley often serves artichokes with sheep’s milk cheeses, simply prepared cuts of chicken, beef, pork or veal, and citrus, the latter designed to complement their natural citrus aftertaste. “When you accent it with citrus and herbs, it is a marriage made in heaven,” she says.
With so many possibilities, it’s not likely boredom that prevents home chefs from adoring artichokes: It’s the perception that artichokes are fussy and thus take skill and ample time to prepare. “Folks are often intimidated by them. Sometimes at the farmer’s markets I notice that our baby artichokes don’t appeal to all customers in the same way as things like carrots, broccoli, or onions,” says Clayton Burrows, the director of the collaboration of farmers known as Growing Washington.
If you plan to do more than boil these tasty thistles, most preparations require you to trim off the leaves and remove the unpleasant choke in the middle of the vegetable. However, you can reduce the labor required by buying baby artichokes, which are Globe artichokes that farmers harvest early to meet a growing demand among local chefs and market goers.
Tender baby artichokes are more practical for preparations like sautéing and are much easier to work with than more mature vegetables. Quite often, you won’t have to clean out the chokes from the babies because they either lack them or because the chokes haven’t become prickly like they will in mature artichokes “It’s nice to not have to take out the choke,” says Erickson. “Then you just peel them down and cut them in half. And, there is less waste that way.”
Of course, baby artichokes still require some prep, mainly a bit of trimming and preparing a lemon water bath to prevent the trimmed artichokes from browning. But as Tinsley points out, it’s worth your time to seek out artichokes while they are in season. “Since artichokes are a seasonal ingredient, you want to enjoy them at least two to three times a year,” she says. “It is worth the time and effort to prepare them and the reward is just so great.”
Sidebar: Shopping and Storing
Ashley Gartland is a Portland-based freelance food writer and recipe developer who has written for MIX, Sunset, and Tastingtable.com. She is currently working on her first cookbook, titled Dishing Up Oregon. Read more of her work at www.ashleygartland.com.