The artichoke: an immature flower with taste

It was around the turn of the century when Italian immigrants to California started cultivating small crops of artichokes. The Pacific fog and the cool summers and mild winters suited it so perfectly that suddenly in the early 1920s, for lack of anything better to plant, the small crop expanded to 10,000 acres.

It is still a large crop. Today the town of Castroville on the Monterey Bay grows 90 percent of the American supply and is known as the artichoke capital of the country.

Nearly all those grown here are the large globe artichokes, rather than the small Italian types, which can be purple, thorny, or conical.

The vegetable we eat is actually the immature flower of the artichoke plant, which grows on the tips of its branches.

The plant, a perennial, grows three or four feet high and six feet in diameter, and yields two crops a year. Since the California winter crop is harvested in spring, you can expect them to be plentiful about now, with the seasonal peak around Easter.

Artichokes make an uncommonly handsome decoration in themselves, either dried or fresh, arranged in small groups. For their visual appeal some people prefer to cook and serve them untrimmed, but they are easier to eat when the petals are trimmed.

Lemon complements the flavor of artichoke, so sauces such as Hollandaise, seasoned mayonnaise, or vinaigrette often accompany it.

The sauce can be served with the whole artichoke to dip the fleshy leaves into, or you can scoop out the hairy central choke and serve the sauce inside the hollow for an attractive presentation.

The delectable heart underneath the choke is the prize and makes an excellent cup for savory stuffings. Fill it with mushroom duxelles, poached eggs, chicken liver, or seafood p^at'e.

Indeed, a pur'ee or mixture of almost anything delicious will turn the heart into an elegant garnish for whatever you please.

If you plan to serve the artichoke standing on its base, cut off the stem with a sharp knife.

If you will serve it otherwise, leave the stem on and peel it to reveal the tender inner core.

Quarter or halve the whole trimmed flower lengthwise according to size. Besides lemon, the artichoke takes well to olive oil, garlic, and herbs, in keeping with its Mediterranean heritage.

Trim the artichoke before or after cooking, but bear in mind two essentials. First, do not overcook it. Second, to keep the exposed cut flesh from turning dark, rub with lemon juice or immerse in acidulated water until you cook it. To Prepare Artichokes

Wash thoroughly under cold running water. Trim base with a sharp knife. Pull off tough green outer leaves and trim all around. Rub all cut surfaces with cut lemon to prevent discoloration.

Cut across to remove top inch of crown with knife, then trim off thorny tops of large outer leaves with scissors.

If serving only the heart, cut off all but the bottom inch or so of the artichoke, then scoop out central leaves and hairy choke.

Drop trimmed artichokes into a bowl of water and lemon juice.

Cook in uncovered pot of boiling water, acidulated with a slice of lemon or a couple of tablespoons of lemon juice.

Large whole artichokes take 30 to 40 minutes to cook and are done when a leaf pulls out easily.

If serving them cold, immediately plunge into cold water to stop cooking. Drain thoroughly upside down. Artichokes in Olive Oil, Lemon Juice, and Broth 1/4 cup olive oil 1/4 cup lemon juice 2 cups chicken broth (half-strength if canned) 1 small onion, sliced 2 garlic cloves, whole 2 sprigs fresh parsley 1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon, or 1 teaspoon freshly chopped tarragon 1/2 bay leaf Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 2 medium-large artichokes

Mix together olive oil, lemon juice, and chicken broth in a covered casserole or pot just large enough to hold both artichokes.

Add onion, garlic, herbs, and salt and pepper.

Trim artichokes as for eating them whole and put them directly into liquid, bottom side down. Add enough water so that liquid barely covers artichokes. Cover, and over medium heat bring liquid to a boil.

Set lid slightly askew and cook about 30 minutes, until a leaf pulls out easily. (If not serving immediately, allow artichokes to cool in liquid. You may refrigerate them overnight, but return to room temperature before proceeding.)

Drain and set on serving dishes, preferably fairly deep ones. Discard onions, garlic, parsley, and bay leaf. Over high heat, boil liquid down until well concentrated.

Spoon reduced broth over and around artichokes. Serve with crusty bread as a first course or light luncheon dish. Serves 2. Saut'eed Artichokes With Cheese 2 tablespoons butter 1 garlic clove, minced 4 to 6 medium artichokes, trimmed, quartered lengthwise, and blanched 1/4 cup grated cheese, such as Gruy`ere or Fontina Salt and freshly ground pepper 2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

Melt butter in pan and saut'e garlic until transparent. Add artichokes and cook them about 5 minutes, stirring, until they are thoroughly hot. Sprinkle with cheese and toss again. Add salt and pepper to taste, garnish with parsley, and serve at once. Serves 3 to 4.

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