Growing up in Virginia, spring’s arrival was heralded by blooming dogwood trees, several appearances of my mother’s asparagus with hard-cooked egg and my favorite steamed artichokes, their leaves dipped in dishes of warm melted butter and scraped against bottom teeth. Meanwhile in New York and Chicago, my husband’s Italian-American family was serving to-die-for artichokes stuffed with a lusty mixture of breadcrumbs, garlic, olive oil and herbs. We share an abiding love for the spiky edible flower, husband and I, and now in California (where nearly all the artichokes in the US are grown) we stuff ourselves all spring, taking advantage of the peak seasons in March and April and again in the early fall.
This time of year I usually prefer large artichokes, steamed and very plain, but the baskets of baby artichokes beckoned at the market (aren’t we just so a-dor-able?), deserving of a thoughtful preparation. “Baby” artichokes, just a few ounces each, grow lower on the stalk and don’t take on much size in the shade. Their outer leaves (called bracts, if we’re getting technical) are far more tender than the large and jumbo variety, and the miniature ones won’t have an inedible choke to remove. I used a (just barely) larger variety for this stylish spring recipe, and you can substitute medium-sized artichokes as well.
At the market, look for tightly closed artichokes that feel heavy for their size and give a little squeak when you rub their leaves. A bit of bronzing on the outer leaves isn’t a bad thing, but indicates the artichoke shivered through a frost and will offer a more pronounced, sweeter flavor. (What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, even with artichokes.)
One last note: artichokes can be difficult to pair with wine, as they tend to make everything eaten or imbibed with them taste sweeter. Since your fine wine won’t taste as the vintner intended anyway, go cheap. Skip reds all together (especially those high in tannins) and serve with a dry, higher-acid Sauvignon Blanc, rosé, Orvieto or Viognier. Lemon-spiked sparkling water or lemonade works well for non-drinkers.
Artichoke and Prosciutto Antipasto
adapted from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Café, 1999; serves 6-8 and scales down easily
- 8 small artichokes, braised (recipe follows)
- 10-12 thin slices prosciutto
- about 2 oz. Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
- optional: blanched asparagus spears or fava beans, very thinly sliced spring onion whites or green garlic
- big handful or two of arugula or spring mix lettuces
- 1 generous tsp Dijon mustard
- 1 Tbsp lemon juice
- 1 Tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1/8 tsp each salt and pepper, more or less to taste
- 1/3 C extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 Tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped
Prepare the vinaigrette: whisk together the mustard, lemon juice, red wine vinegar, salt and freshly ground pepper. Whisk in 1/3 C extra virgin olive oil; taste and adjust the seasonings and acid to your liking. Lightly dress the vegetables and arugula, reserving the remaining vinaigrette for another use. Toss the salad with the parsley and arrange on a platter (or individual plates) with the prosciutto. Use a vegetable peeler to cut shavings of the Pecorino over top and serve.
Note: I splurged on Prosciutto di Parma for this dish. Worth it.
adapted from Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables, 1996; serves 4-6
- 8 small artichokes (about 3 lbs total)
- 4 plump garlic cloves, slivered
- 1/3 C extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tsp fresh thyme, minced
- 1 tsp fresh sage, minced
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 lemon
- Pecorino Romano, for garnish (optional)
- salt and pepper
In a large bowl, add the juice of half the lemon (reserve the other half) and several pints of water. Prep the artichokes: first peel the outer leaves until you reach the tender leaves with a pale yellow color. With a paring knife, cut away the little bits of dark green leaves left behind; rub the cut surfaces with the lemon half to keep from browning. Use a vegetable peeler to clean up your cuts and whittle down the stem a bit. Trim the stem, leaving about 1/2″ behind. (Continue to rub any cut surfaces with the lemon half.) With a serrated knife, trim the top third of the artichoke and discard. Cut the artichoke in half, lengthwise. From the top of the artichoke, grasp the inner third section of leaves and remove. Use a spoon to scrape out the fuzzy, inedible choke. (Very small artichokes won’t have any to remove.) Toss the prepped artichoke half into the bowl of acidulated water. Repeat with the remaining artichokes.
To a non-reactive pan (iron and aluminum will discolor artichokes), add the garlic, olive oil, bay leaf, thyme, 1/2 tsp salt, the artichokes and 1 C of the lemon water. Toss to coat. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered and stirring occasionally, for about 15-20 minutes until tender. Serve on their own, as an antipasto as described above, or over soft polenta with a drizzle of olive oil and generous shavings of Pecorino.
Note: the artichokes can be braised ahead and keep well for a few days in the fridge.