Artichokes, the ultimate slow food, are in season in Pittsburgh right now.
In a city like Pittsburgh, where Italian roots run deep, there’s plenty of love for the artichoke. Antipasti platters piled high with marinated artichokes and dishes of creamy artichoke dip are staples around here. Fresh artichokes, however, aren’t so common a sight. This is partly because they don’t exactly make quick work in the kitchen. As anyone who has taken a hand to this thorny vegetable (a relative of the thistle, in fact) can attest, prepping and cooking artichokes requires considerable time and labor.
Recipe for Steamed Artichokes with Lemon-Garlic Butter.
This month, when the season peaks in California (the state supplies virtually all of the nation’s artichokes), take the time to make fresh artichokes at home. The quality is best this time of year, and prices are usually lower since there’s an abundance. For recipe ideas, look to Italy, where the thorny vegetable enjoys a culinary status that’s unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Its popularity there owes something to its history in the Mediterranean where its predecessor, the wild cardoon, was grown and eaten by the ancient Greeks as early as 300 B.C. Italian cooks seem to have endless ways to prepare artichokes; the vegetables might be crisp-fried, added to frittatas or gratins, braised with leeks, added to lasagna or simply grilled and served with fresh lemon. Perhaps the easiest way to enjoy them is by steaming or boiling (see recipe below); in either case, you’d eat them by picking off the tough petals one at a time and using your front teeth to scrape off the tender, flavorful base.
On American soil, Italian immigrants first introduced artichokes during the early 1900s, planting them south of San Francisco in a tiny town called Half Moon Bay. Within 20 years, the modern artichoke industry emerged in Castroville, Calif., which remains the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Center of the World.” Artichokes are unique in that the most expensive part of producing them is the labor; each one must be picked and packed by hand. Happily, the work-intensive production cycle ends with fresh artichokes in our markets and on our tables. If we were shopping at springtime markets in Italy, we’d likely find the large globes neatly pared down to their hearts. But, instead, we have to do the work ourselves—but that just makes the reward more delicious.
Fresh artichokes are available at well-stocked grocery stores everywhere this time of year. Once you arrive home with the green globes, don’t feel intimidated. Read on for our easy tips for handling artichokes like a pro—whether you’re battling the medieval-looking thorny leaves during prep or trying to reach the heart by removing the purple-green, inedible fuzzy choke. If you’re craving marinated artichokes, shop at Pennsylvania Macaroni Co.’s deli, where you’ll find whole stemmed, marinated artichoke hearts imported from Italy. (Other specialty products include Penn Mac’s brand of artichoke red sauce.)
Peak artichoke season is March through May. Look for small, round artichokes that are a soft green color and are heavy for their size. (During summer or fall, the shape is more conical and color is darker green.) Leaves should look plump, not shriveled. When bent back, they should snap, not tear. A fresh artichoke should squeak when squeezed.
The old-fashioned method of clipping the thorny tips of each petal has gone by the wayside. Here’s what to do in three easy steps: First, pull off lower petals that are small or discolored. Next, cut stems close to the base. Lastly, cut off top quarter and tips of petals, if desired. (It’s not a must to remove the thorns; they soften while cooking and won’t prick your fingers during dinner.) If you like, prep the edible stems, too: Peel the fibrous outer layer and steam them whole with the artichokes. After cooking, cut into rounds and add to salad or pasta.
When eating a green-globe artichoke that has been steamed or boiled, pull off the outer petals one at a time. Dip the base of each petal into aïoli, mayo or melted butter, and pull through your teeth to remove the soft, pulpy portion of the petal. Discard the remainder of the petal. Continue until all the petals have been removed (yes, you’ll end up with a huge pile of leaf debris on your plate). Spoon out the fuzzy center at base and discard. The bottom (or heart of the artichoke) is entirely edible. Cut into small pieces and dip into sauce.
About Jarred Artichokes
Marinated artichoke hearts, tangy from their extended soak in vinegar and often spices, are a staple in antipasti platters. They can also be a starting point for delicious crostini (try layering them atop a slather of mascarpone) or spreads (not just creamy artichoke dip, but also tapenade). You can purchase canned or frozen artichokes, too; you wouldn’t want to eat these plain because their texture can be mushy, but they can work in recipes for things like pasta sauce. If using canned artichokes, rinse and dry them before using in recipes (the mildly acidic saltwater solution lends them a slightly briny flavor); if using frozen, thaw in the microwave and drain before use.