Monday, April 28, 2008

Coming up Flowers

I am not at my best in the winter -- I shy away from snow and drizzle, I don’t see my closest friends for the entirety of the ski season. But after a long winter hiding away from the rain and cold, I have finally peeked my head out of the house long enough to discover that spring has sprung here in the Northwest, although just barely!

A few years ago, on a lovely spring day I met my husband. I didn’t know it then, but there were clues that he was my match early in the relationship. I knew I was a lucky girl when the fellow in question presented me with a bouquet of unlikely flowers… artichokes. In an instant I went from really liking artichokes to adoring them!

Artichokes are a native of the Mediterranean, but grow quite well here in the Northwest. California produces 99% of the commercially sold artichokes, while Oregon and Washington are full of private artichoke farms. Although we generally think of the artichoke as a vegetable, it is actually a flower! The artichoke is a member of the thistle group and related to the sunflower family. The vegetable that we eat is the plant's flower bud. If allowed to flower, the blooms grow up to seven inches in diameter and blossom into a striking iridescent violet-blue color.

Artichokes are a good source of fiber, vitamin C, folate and potassium. Each tasty artichoke is also low in sodium, fat-free and tops out at only 25 calories. Perfect pre-bathing suit season food! Artichokes take a little prep work, but are well worth the time and effort. Here are a few ideas on how to utilize the garden's, or grocery store's, bounty.

Preparing Your Artichoke
Cut off the stem and top 1/4 inch of the leaves and discard. Cutting off the stem will allow the artichoke to sit flat in the pan and plate. If you want, use scissors to trim any remaining sharp tips from the leaves. The cut sides of artichokes will turn brown if not rubbed with lemon juice, so after you make a cut, you can either rub half a lemon over the edges or add the artichoke to a bowl of acidulated water (Just add a tablespoon of lemon juice per cup of water, then soak the artichoke in the water until ready to cook.) Cook the artichokes in a large pot of boiling salted water until the base of each is tender when pierced with a knife, and the leaves pull away easily; this will take about 25 minutes. Drain the cooked artichokes well before serving.

Eating An Artichoke
Artichokes are the ultimate finger food. The only utensil needed is a small spoon to help clean away the choke, which is attached to the heart of the artichoke.

To start, pull one petal from the outside of the flower. You will notice a bit of pale green "meat" on the bottom of the petal. This is your goal! Don't bite the petal, but run the "meat" part along your teeth to scrape it off. The outer leaves are tougher and will have a more defined bit of artichoke "meat" attached. As you move closer toward the center of the artichoke, the leaves will become tender. Sometimes it is easier to bite off the end of these leaves because scraping becomes difficult.

When the leaves become small and sharp you are very close to the heart of the artichoke (and what I consider the best part). The choke is the center of the flower and looks like short grayish green wires folded inward. Using the small spoon lightly scrape at the choke. It will begin to come away from the smooth soft-looking heart. Continue scraping until the entire choke has been removed. Now claim your prize and bite into the heart.

Better then Basic Artichokes
Plain steamed artichokes dipped in mayo or melted butter are good, but this is far better!

4 artichokes, trimmed as above
The juice of half a lemon
1/2 cup chopped parsley
4 Tablespoons chopped garlic

1 Rub the cut sides of the artichokes with the lemon and squeeze a little juice between the leaves. Mash together garlic and parsley. Tuck a quarter of the mixture into each artichoke.
2 Put the 4 artichokes in a saucepan and add about 2 inches water to the pot. The water should not totally submerge the artichokes; about an inch of artichoke should be above the water line. Boil about 30 minutes or until the outer leaves pull away easily.

1⁄2 cup low fat mayo (1⁄4 cup mayo and 1⁄4 cup nonfat plain yogurt)
1 teaspoon garlic
2 Tablespoons horseradish (more if you like things a little spicy)
1 Tablespoon deli-style mustard
sprinkle of salt
squeeze of lemon juice

Mix all ingredients. Serve alongside the artichokes as a dip.

Stuffed Artichokes
This recipe mixes up some of my favorite flavors, parmesan cheese, prosciutto, and garlic, into a couscous filling for the artichokes, and makes a yummy first course or light spring dinner. Serve with a green salad and some good wine. Putting the artichokes in a muffin tin when stuffing and broiling will keep them upright.

4 steamed artichokes
1 cup cooked couscous
2 slices prosciutto
1 Tablespoon crushed garlic
1⁄4 cup of shredded parmesan cheese

1 With a spoon, carefully scoop out the middle of the steamed artichokes. Make sure to scrape out the choke, but leave the heart intact.
2 In a small frying pan over medium heat, sauté the chopped prosciutto and garlic for about 1 minute until fragrant. Add the cooked couscous and 1⁄2 of the cheese. Mix until the cheese has melted, about another minute.
3 Spoon 1⁄4 of the mixture into the center of each artichoke. Sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top of the artichokes.
4 Place under the broiler for about 2 minutes until the cheese is melted.

Baby Artichokes
If you are lucky enough to find baby artichokes in your farmer's market or grocery, snap them up. After the mini-chokes have been properly trimmed they can be eaten whole, just like the ones out of the can. These are much more delicate and flavorful then the canned versions.

Add these little babies to any dish calling for artichoke hearts; chicken dishes, pastas, or pizzas all benefit from the fresh hearts. Or sauté them up and serve with a good crusty bread and a chunk of brie.

To trim the baby artichokes:
There is an additional step to preparing baby artichokes. These are actually immature artichokes, so the choke isn't developed and therefore, doesn't need to be removed.

Trim the end and top 1/4 of the artichoke. Then snap off the outer layer of leaves until you see only the pale lemony yellow/greenish inner leaves. Half or quarter each artichoke depending on its size.

Sautéed Baby Artichokes
2 cups of trimmed baby artichokes, halved or quartered
1 teaspoon olive oil
3 Tablespoons or more of chopped garlic
1⁄4 cup chopped pancetta
1⁄2 cup water
1⁄4 cream sherry
In a large frying pan, heat up the olive oil over medium heat. Add pancetta and garlic and sauté until browned and fragrant. Add artichokes and sauté for a few minutes until the edges brown a bit. Add most or all the water, cover and steam for about 10 minutes. lighten up:
For a lighter-tasting variation of this dish, omit the pancetta and sherry and substitute lemon juice, chopped herbs and white wine.

Add sherry to the pan; with a flat spatula scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen all the browned bits of garlic and pancetta. The dish is finished when the liquid has evaporated so that only about half the original volume is left. Transfer the cooked artichokes into a bowl and enjoy with a fresh baguette, or pour over chicken or pasta.

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