Getting to the heart of things: In spring, it's artichokes

March 29, 1995|By Jimmy Schmidt | Jimmy Schmidt,Knight-Ridder News Service

The cool, misty mornings of late winter and early summer give birth to the maturing artichoke. As a chef, I anxiously await the arrival of artichokes at their peak.

An artichoke is the immature flower of a large bush, a member of the thistle family. The heart of the artichoke is the flower base or receptacle, with the leaves being protective bracts of the flower center, better known as the choke.

Baby artichokes are almost entirely edible, but as they grow and get larger, the medium and large artichokes develop firmer outer leaves that are quite difficult to eat. The larger artichokes are cooked, then trimmed of these coarse outer leaves and papery choke center, leaving the delicate base or heart and tender inner leaves.

Select artichokes with green to slightly golden-topped leaves that are very resilient and crisp. Look at the stem to determine the freshness of the artichoke.

Artichokes are best cooked whole to prevent their delicate flesh from turning black. Bring water in a large pot to a boil, add salt and the artichokes. Place a plate or pot lid atop the artichokes to keep them submerged. Cook until they are tender as measured by inserting a small skewer in to the base without any resistance.

Drain the artichokes, inverted, in a colander and allow to cool before cleaning. If you prefer to clean the artichokes of the coarse outer leaves and choke before cooking, all the exposed surfaces of the artichoke must be rubbed with lemon juice or vinegar to slow the process of turning black.

Here's a terrific and simple pasta to get you in the mood for spring.

Artichoke-Chicken Linguine

Serves 4

12 baby artichokes

salt to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves fresh garlic, peeled, ends removed, finely minced

1 red onion, peeled, diced

2 red peppers, washed, cored, seeded, diced

vegetable stock, white wine or water

1 pound linguine

4 chicken breasts, boneless, skinless, trimmed of all connective tissue, washed, patted dry, cut into large dice

1 cup minced fresh basil

freshly ground black pepper

freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Fill a large pot three-quarters full with water. Bring to a boil over high heat. Add salt. Add the artichokes, cooking until tender as measured by inserting a small skewer into the base by the stem without any resistance, about 10 to 15 minutes.

Drain the artichokes, inverted in a colander, and allow them to cool before cleaning. Cut the artichokes lengthwise into quarters. Holding the stem end, gently cut down through the top of the leaves, until the knife stops at the coarse outer leaves.

Maintain the pressure on the knife to hold the artichoke to your cutting board. Pry the heart and choke from the outer leaves and discard the choke. Store in water with lemon juice or vinegar added under refrigeration for up to 2 days.

Boil water for the pasta.

In a large nonstick skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and cook until it just begins to turn brown. Add the red onion and cook until tender and it begins to brown on the edges, about 8 minutes. Add the red pepper and cook until tender, adding a little splash of vegetable stock, white wine or water to keep the pan from too heavily browning, about 6 minutes. Add the artichokes, cooking until thoroughly heated. Remove from the heat and keep warm.

Salt the pot of boiling water. Cook linguine according to package directions and drain in a colander.

Meanwhile, as the pasta is just about done, return the skillet with the vegetables to high heat and add the chicken, cooking thoroughly, about 4 minutes. Add the pasta and the basil, tossing to combine. Season generously with salt and pepper to taste.

Remove from the heat and transfer to a large hot serving bowl or warm individual serving plates. Top with Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

Per serving: Calories, 840; calories from fat, 14 percent; fat, 13 g; cholesterol, 96 mg; sodium, 321 mg; carbohydrate, 127 g; protein, 58 g.

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