MY dad has always derided artichokes as being "too much effort for too little reward." And I can't really blame him. The whole process of eating artichokes by tearing off each leaf, dipping it into melted butter or mayonnaise, scraping the flesh off with your teeth, accumulating a mammoth pile of nibbled leaves, scooping the prickly choke out, then finally savoring the tender heart as a well-earned prize is a bit time consuming, so it's no wonder he had an artichoke aversion.
Fortunately, artichokes are starting to come into their own in this country, and chefs are preparing them as the Italians have for centuries -- fried, stewed, stuffed, sauteed, baked, grilled and even served raw. And it's not only the delicious hearts from more mature buds that are being used, but also the tender, undeveloped buds of baby artichokes.
From rotund, fleshy, dark-green globe artichokes to petite, teardrop-shaped violettos, farmers' markets are loaded with artichokes now at their seasonal peak.
The artichoke is the immature flower of a perennial thistle indigenous to the Mediterranean. The Italians have been cultivating artichokes for more than 2,000 years, and are considered the masters of artichoke cookery.
Artichokes were first brought to California by Italian immigrants at the turn of the last century, and the plants thrived in the cool, coastal climate. Today, Castroville is touted as the "artichoke capital" and even has its own festival celebrating the glorious thistle.
Until recently, the globe was the most common variety found in stores and restaurants. Round or disc-shaped with a meaty heart, globe is an old-fashioned cultivar grown from root stock that can produce perennial crops for up to 10 years, although it can take up to two years for new plants to produce an appreciable crop.
Unfortunately, because the artichoke fields aren't plowed under and planted new each season, the field can be a haven for rodents, snails and root disease.
Enter Imperial Star, an "improved" variety of artichoke with a lighter color and spineless leaves that was developed by the University of California. Imperial Star is also a perennial, but it's not treated that way by growers.
"Imperial Star takes just a few months to produce a large crop," says organic farmer Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm. "You plant the starts (seedlings) in a field, and after the harvest is over, you just plow up the field and begin again the next season. That way, pests and disease can't establish themselves in your field and the crop can be grown year-round in variable climates."
Andrew Griffin of Mariquita Farm adds, "Since Imperial Star is planted in fall for a spring harvest, then tilled under like an annual crop, growers in hotter climates can then use that field to grow something else between artichoke plantings."
Unfortunately,Imperial Star is threatening the established globe artichoke growers along the coast. "Now artichokes can be grown all over the place and directly sown like lettuce, at an inflated price because of their size," says Griffin.
To add to their woes, commercial producers no longer have a market for the smaller buds that are produced on each plant along with the large, main bud. The small buds were traditionally used for marinated and canned artichoke hearts, but most marinated hearts are now being imported from Europe for less money.
If things are looking tough for commercial farmers, what are small-scale organic farmers such as Griffin or Swanton to do?
"I found a different niche for myself," says Griffin, who owns an organic farm in Hollister. "I don't have the money to compete with these big commercial growers with their ocean-front farmland, so I decided to specialize in organic, Italian, heirloom crops."
Swanton, who farms in the prime artichoke territory of coastal Davenport, continues to grow globe chokes from root stock because he believes they have a superior flavor and bigger heart, while the imperial stars are tasteless and lack an adequate sized heart.
Regardless of variety and size, always choose artichokes with tightly closed buds -- opened leaves are a sign of age. Artichokes are best when eaten right away.
To prepare the immature buds, which lack the fuzzy choke, simply remove any small leaves from the stem, pare the stem if desired, then trim away the top of the entire bud.
Depending upon their size, you can either halve or quarter the buds, or even leave them whole if they're very small, then cook as desired.
To prepare the hearts of large artichokes, take the uncooked bud and remove the small leaves attached to the stem and base. Trim the stem to about 1 inch. Cut the top part of the bud off to about 11/2 inches above the base. Place the artichoke on its cut surface and trim away the remaining leaves, making sure to leave their edible pale green centers where they attach to the base. Scoop out the fuzzy choke with a spoon, and prepare as desired.
Be aware that prepared artichokes discolor when exposed to air, so keep them in acidulated water (water with lemon juice or vinegar) before cooking. If you plan on frying your artichokes, skip the water and just rub them with a cut lemon.
Try frying the immature buds and serving them with an herbed aioli, or grill whole hearts and top them with a dollop of Meyer lemon relish.
Cardoons are a close relative to the artichoke, but the stalks, instead of the thistle, are eaten. Cardoons are popular in France and Italy, and although they can be found growing wild throughout the Mediterranean and Northern California, they're difficult to find in markets and on menus.
Laura Trent of Tip Top Produce, an organic farm in Vacaville, sells her cardoons to Chez Panisse, where they frequently end up in salads, braised in ragouts, baked in gratins or turned into crispy fritters.
Trent, first introduced to cardoons by a neighbor with an Italian grandfather, now grows an improved variety called tenderheart. Cardoons, which can grow up to 6 feet tall, have long, spiky, artichoke-like leaves with a slightly bitter bite.
The leaves need to be trimmed and the spiny skins removed. Peel the stalks and remove the celery-like strings before cooking.
For inspired cardoon recipes, "Chez Panisse Vegetables" by Alice Waters (Harper-Collins, $35) is a good source, as is "The Cook & the Gardener" by Amanda Hesser (W.W. Norton, $32.50).
Sure, artichokes and cardoons may take a bit of work, but Dad always told me that nothing worth having is easy.
Swanton Berry Farm's artichokes are at the Berkeley and Ferry Plaza farmers' markets; Mariquita Farm's artichokes are at Ferry Plaza farmers' market; Terra Firma Farm sells artichokes at the Berkeley and Marin farmers' markets, and Riverdog Farm sells at the Berkeley farmers' market.
Cardoons are available from Tip Top Produce, Grand Lake farmers' market and Rainbow Grocery. Knoll Farms's cardoons are at Monterey Market, Market Hall produce in Oakland, Rainbow Grocery, Real Food Co., Molly Stone's, and Whole Foods in San Francisco.
Recipe by Paul Bertolli of Oliveto restaurant in Oakland, published in "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
1/2 cup half-and-half
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
3/4 cup grated creamy Havarti cheese (also called Dofino)
1/2 cup grated Reggiano Parmigiano
1 bunch spinach, cleaned and trimmed
1 bunch fresh basil, chopped coarsely
2 ounces Prosciutto di Parma, sliced thin, then cut into small dice
12 baby artichokes or 5 to 6 globe artichokes
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots, minced
Juice of 1/4 lemon
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large bowl, beat eggs slightly. Pour in the half-and-half, salt and pepper. Add the Havarti cheese and the Reggiano Parmigiano.
Bring a pot of water to boil. Plunge in the spinach and cook for 2 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water. Squeeze out as much water as possible, then chop fine. Add the chopped spinach, basil and prosciutto to the egg mixture. Mix well and set aside.
To prepare the baby artichokes, remove any small leaves from the stem, pare the stem if desired, then trim off its top. For larger artichokes, remove the small leaves attached to the stem and base, trim the stem to about 1 inch, cut the top of the artichoke off about 11/2 inches above the base and scoop out the fuzzy choke. Then cut them in half.
Warm 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a 6-inch nonstick skillet. Add the shallots and cook them over medium heat for 2 minutes. Add the artichokes, lemon juice and water. Sprinkle with a little salt and cover the pan. Cook for about 10 minutes, until centers are tender. Remove lid let the liquid cook off. Let cool briefly, add the shallots and artichokes to the egg mixture, and stir well.
Prepare a water bath by filling a baking dish, large enough to fit the skillet, with enough warm water to go about a quarter the way up the skillet. Set aside.
Heat the remaining 11/2 tablespoons of olive oil in the skillet. Add the egg mixture and cook for 4 to 5 minutes. Carefully lift the edges of the torta to see that it has browned nicely all around. When it has, remove from heat and immediately place the pan into the water bath to stop the browning (this will create a lot of steam and some spattering). Carefully place the torta and water bath in the oven and bake for 50 to 55 minutes or until the torta is firm in the center and brown on top.
Turn the torta, bottom side up, onto a cutting board and cut into 1-inch chunks. Serve the torta pieces, top side up, at room temperature. Serves 8 to 8 as an appetizer.
Per Serving: 298 Calories; 17g Fat; 19g Protein; 23g Carbohydrate; 11g Dietary Fiber; 213mg Cholesterol; 738mg Sodium. Exchanges: 11/2 Lean Meat; 4 Vegetable; 21/2 Fat.
E-mail Laurel Miller at email@example.com.
This column is a service of the Berkeley Farmers' Market and Eating Fresh Publications (www.eatingfresh.com) publishers of "Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area."
The Berkeley Farmers' Market is open 2-7 p.m. Tuesdays at Derby Street and MLK
Jr. Way, and 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays at Center Street and MLK Jr. Way.
Call (510) 548-3333 or visit www.ecologycenter.org