Oh, Baby! Artichokes

September 16, 2011

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.

~Luis Buñuel

While memory is often altered to suit self and others (as if life then stands explained), we carry our youth through life. Our early impressions doggedly remain, however spun later to placate others. Sometimes correcting unjust misperceptions or often simply revising the past to fit the present. Thankfully, food has stasis and lacks this kind of delusion. Food adorns a plate honestly without demand or compromise, and sometimes even dominates conversation, imagination. I have been smitten by these green thistles since childhood…at first infatuation, then a torrid tryst and finally an abiding love that has perservered. And at least with artichokes you can rinse and carve away the bitterness.

Despite the misnomer, luscious baby artichokes are not infants. Rather, they are fully mature perennials that grow closer to the ground than their rotund partners, sheltered by fronds overhead which effectively stunts their growth. Artichokes are meticulously planted and harvested by hand. At full blossom, the plants spread to some 6 feet in diameter and reach a height of 3-4 feet. The fields are maintained in perennial culture for some 5-10 years with each cropping cycle launched by cutting back the tops several inches below the soil to stimulate development of new shoots. Sometimes called “stumping,” this is timed to initiate a new harvest.

These tender baby morsels are coveted by chefs thanks to their ease of prep and plating beauty, whether sautéed, roasted, braised, grilled, steamed, or fried. Unlike with larger globes, the inner fuzzy choke does not develop making the plant almost fully edible.

Usually available throughout the year they have a peak spring season, and then a smaller crop is reaped in autumn. Select small, tightly closed, firm, heavy, evenly green artichokes. Avoid dry looking thistles that are browning or too open or gaping.

SAUTEED BABY ARTICHOKES WITH HERBS

Juice of 1 lemon
Cold water
12 baby artichokes

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
4 fresh sage leaves
1/4 C fresh tarragon leaves, loosely packed
1/2 C fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
Small pinch of red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper

Sea salt
Parmigiano-reggiano, grated
1 T capers (optional)

Rinse the artichokes under cold water. This will remove the natural thin film that can give the choke a bitter taste. Then, snap off the outer layer of leaves until you reach the pale, yellow-green layer of petals—sort of half-green at the top and half-yellow at the bottom. Trim off the stem and pare all remaining dark green areas from bases as they can prove bitter. Cut about 1/2″ off the tops of the artichokes and then cut them in half lengthwise.

To prevent browning, soak the trimmed artichokes in cold water acidulated with lemon or vinegar. This also loosens dirt that may have settled between the leaves. Drain the artichokes well and press between kitchen or paper towels to remove most of the water.

Place a heavy, large sauté pan over medium high heat, then add the olive oil and heat until shimmering. (Please be aware that the water residue will cause spatter when the artichokes are added to the hot oil.)

Add the artichokes in batches to the heated olive oil and toss quickly to sear. Add the garlic, herbs, red pepper flakes, black pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the artichokes are tender, caramelized and slightly crisp at the edges, about 8-10 minutes. Do not burn the garlic—it should be light golden. Season with salt, very lightly sprinkle with grated parmigiano-reggiano, and strew with a few capers.

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