All wrapped up in artichokes

Chef's Corner

April 17, 2002|By Spike Gjerde | Spike Gjerde,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

This is the first in a monthly series. One of the lowlights of my restaurant career was my brief infatuation several years ago with the cardoon.

For reasons lost to me now but probably derived from the exotic ring of its name, I began pestering our produce vendor for this distinctly non-native vegetable, and even added it to the menu of a wine dinner before I was assured of a supply.

As the dinner approached, I became more and more insistent, until finally a weather-beaten box appeared at our kitchen door containing what looked to be giant, bleached stalks of celery. After an arduous process that involved trimming, peeling, parboiling, destringing and a second cooking, we were left with a small pot of pale spears that tasted vaguely like -- artichokes.

Since then, the cardoon has receded into my culinary memory, while the artichoke remains a vibrant sign that spring is on its way. The fact that its season -- like that of another of spring's glories, asparagus -- is fleeting only intensifies its appeal.

The artichokes in the market now are the best and cheapest of the year. Both the large and small (or baby) varieties are from the same plant, a thistle, which is cultivated in coastal fields in central California. I like both varieties, but the smaller ones have the advantage of lacking the fuzzy center, or choke, and are thus easier to prepare. When selecting artichokes, I look for those that are firm and heavy, either bright green or green with purple highlights, with minimal browning on the leaves or the stem.

From the diner's perspective, artichokes offer a unique combination of meaty texture and distinct taste that stands up well to full-flavored meats and fish. Our spring menu at Spike & Charlie's features pine-nut-encrusted salmon with artichokes and preserved lemon, while a recent special at Atlantic paired baby artichokes with Tasmanian trout and savory bread pudding.

As a chef, I get fired up by the challenges presented by the preparation of fresh artichokes. Most people have had the marinated hearts in those little jars, and many home cooks have mastered the preparation of whole artichokes, snipped of thorns and inverted in a steamer until their leaves loosen and are then dipped one by one in melted butter.

I equate eating artichokes like this to feasting on hard crabs, which is great, but we want to indulge our customers a little bit more (think crab cakes), so we do most of the work for them.

This involves trimming away the tough outer leaves and the fuzzy center and then dropping the artichokes into water acidulated with lemon juice to prevent the discoloration that happens as soon as they are cut.

Like crabs, fresh artichokes can bite. Be aware of the thorns near the tips of the leaves, and wear gloves if the prospect of getting nicked makes you uncomfortable. I use a serrated knife to make the first cut through the tough outer leaves and a sharp paring knife to trim the rest.

With large or small artichokes, the first step is to squeeze the juice of one lemon into a quart of water and cut another lemon in half. For baby artichokes, cut the leaves about halfway from the top and trim a quarter inch from the bottom of the stem. Pull the leaves off around the base until they go from green to pale yellow. Pare the stem and bottom down to its pale core. Rub with the cut lemon and drop into the lemon water.

For large artichokes, cut off the top two-thirds, exposing the wispy purple leaves and the fuzzy choke. Pluck the fibrous green leaves from around the base. Trim the bottom of the stem and pare the stem and base down to its pale core. Use a paring knife to cut away most of the choke, then scrape with a spoon to finish the job. Rub with cut lemon and drop into the lemon water.

Cook large trimmed artichokes in 2 quarts of rapidly boiling water into which the juice of one lemon, 1 tablespoon salt and 1/4 cup of flour have been whisked. Enjoy with garlicky mayonnaise or vinaigrette.

To me, fresh artichokes are one of the great pleasures of this season, which, with a little effort, become elevated to something truly wonderful.

To those who disagree, I say, "Well, there are always cardoons."

Spike Gjerde is a chef who owns Spike & Charlie's, Atlantic and Joy America Cafe with his brother, Charlie.

Artichokes Braised in White Wine With Lemon, Garlic and Thyme

4 servings as a side dish

12 small prepared artichokes (trimmed and placed in lemon water)

2 tablespoons olive oil, divided use

1 outside clove of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced

1/2 cup dry white wine

zest of 1 lemon

4 stems of fresh thyme

1 tablespoon butter (optional)

heavy pinch of salt and freshly ground pepper

Remove artichokes from lemon water and drain well. Warm 1 tablespoon olive oil in large saute pan over medium heat. Cut artichokes lengthwise and add to pan. Add garlic and cook, stirring, for 5 minutes. Add wine, lemon zest and thyme. Cover pan for 2 to 3 minutes, then uncover and cook until liquid is almost gone, another 3 to 5 minutes.

Remove thyme stems (most of the leaves will remain). Reduce heat to low and add remaining tablespoon of olive oil and butter, if desired. Season with salt and pepper and toss to coat. Perfectly accompanies grilled salmon or spring lamb.

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