Artichokes are the true harbingers of spring. Their early arrival at the Portland farmer’s markets herald not only the change of seasons but a shift in what appears on our dinner tables. A time to move away from the heartier winter fare that kept us warm, comfortable and nourished over the long grey winter months. To lighter dishes celebrating the season’s symbolic renewal and rebirth.
It is a glorious time of year. The first morels begin to poke their curious heads through the thawing ground, miner’s lettuce and wood sorrel sprout up in an ever expanding green carpet that envelops the dank forest, and mature king salmon return from their five-year sojourn in the Pacific Ocean to begin their legendary runs up the Columbia River.
Perhaps no other vegetable strikes more fear in the hearts of novice cooks than artichokes. Intimidating us with their purple armor. The trepidation felt when we first meet our opponent on the cutting board. The spiky tips fight back against attempts to tame and trim. I am reminded of Pablo Neruda’s poem, Ode to an Artichoke, in which he muses:
With a tender heart
Dressed up like a warrior,
Standing at attention, it built
A small helmet
Under its scales
So sadly often the artichoke wins. Defeated, we are left with one lonely preparation to enjoy them by, the ubiquitous steamed artichoke. Frequently served with some form of a vinaigrette or if we are feeling a bit more adventurous, a Hollandaise, to dip the leaves and bottoms in. We are easily seduced by the insipid bottoms and hearts sold in cans and jars of our supermarkets. Robbed of their true glory, tasting more of the can and the overpowering industrial strength vinaigrette they were drowned in than of spring.
No one surpasses my adoration of artichokes except possibly the late, great Catherine de Medici. She arrived at the French court in 1533 at the tender age of 14 to marry King Henry II. She was reputed to eat so many artichokes in one sitting that court chroniclers thought she would likely explode from the sheer volume consumed. I must confess. I eat artichokes on a daily basis in the spring, sometimes both for lunch and dinner. I prefer the first of season tender babies who appear early. They are best eaten shaved raw and tossed into simple salads with wild arugula and chards of 24-month Parmesan. Dressed only with aged balsamic and extra virgin olive oil and perhaps wrapped in a blanket of prosciutto. Or quickly braised whole in a fragrant bath of white wine, olive oil, minced vegetables, lamb bacon and Provençal aromatics.
At this time of year, the sharp chokes haven’t formed and the outer leaves remain remarkably tender. The toughness comes with the first fiery blasts of July’s heat. When I opt for using solely the trimmed bottoms for tarts and raviolis.
After struggling with our second artichoke, we learn a pair of scissors effortlessly de-arms our opponent and renders them defenseless. Trimming artichokes is easy work and well worth all the tiny pricks we must endure. There is a certain Zen meditation to prepping artichokes. I always explain to young cooks in my kitchens that trimming artichokes is a lot like using a wood lathe. Hold your razor sharp paring knife steadily in your hand. Turn the artichoke around the blade rather than the other way. It usually always takes a few chokes to fully grasp. You must release your thoughts of domination and allow the artichoke to gracefully shed its own outer hull. I made this very short video when I was teaching my five-year-old son Beaumont to do it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q–t1Qe5I6Q
Since we are still enjoying spring I wanted to talk about the baby artichokes and their versatility. Most of the time I prep them the way my family has for centuries in Provence. Artichokes barigoule have always held a special place in my heart and stomach. The mere mention conjures golden sunlit landscapes of Provence in my head. It’s so vivid that I can actually smell Provence in my mind. There were two dishes my mother holds in reverence, a true civet de lapin, or rabbit stew thickened with fresh blood, and artichokes barigoule. These encapsulated her fondest food memories. My version of barigoule is more of a restaurant version made more luxuriously finished with sweet cream butter. I started adding butter when I turned it into a sauce for grilled loup de mer. Now I do all the time.
From the master recipe below I frequently make two variations. They are very easy and require no written recipe. For both, follow all the steps below first. I take whole artichokes from the barigoule broth and wrap them in thinly sliced pancetta. Use a toothpick to keep from unravelling. Grill over an open campfire and enjoying with a crisp rose as an appetizer or in accompaniment to grass fed lamb. The other recipe makes a wonderful lunchtime dish. Cut the artichokes in half lengthwise. Put cut side down in a sauté pan with a thin sheen of olive oil. Put in a 550-degree oven and roast till the cut side turn a beautiful golden brown. Put a ball of room temperature burrata in the center of a plate. Arrange artichokes around and top with freshly made pesto and a drizzle of Provencal olive oil.
For more preparations please visit my blog at http://eattillyoubleed.com/2015/09/artichokes-barigoule-ravioli-or-cooking-with-children-part-deux/
1 pound baby artichokes, about 10 to 12
1 lemon, sliced thin
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 quarts water
Trim the top and bottom 1/4 inch off the baby artichokes. Use a sharp paring knife and trim the outer leaves off. Peel the stem if there is one attached. Cut the artichoke in half lengthwise and drop into a pot with the lemon, sea salt and water. Bring to a boil, then simmer till tender, about 20 minutes. The tip of a knife should easily pierce the artichoke.
1 cup of artichoke cooking liquid
1 cup white wine
1/4 cup fruity olive oil
3 ounces smoked lamb bacon, diced
2 young carrots, peeled and sliced
1 small spring fennel, chop stems and bulbs
Put one cup artichoke cooking liquid, white wine and olive oil in a pan and bring to a boil. Add lamb bacon, carrots, fennel, garlic, thyme and bay leaf. Simmer till carrots are tender, about 15 minutes. Add artichokes, lemon zest and some lemon juice. I say some lemon juice because I want you to taste it. The purpose is to add just enough bright acidity to cut the richness of the olive oil and butter. The lemon flavor should not overpower. Add basil and whisk in butter. Adjust salt and pepper and serve.
About Chef François
Chef François grew up in a very French household in Chicago. His earliest attempts at cookery began with the filleting of his sister’s goldfish at age two and a braised rabbit dish made with his pet rabbits at age seven. He eventually stopped cooking his pets and went to the highly esteemed New England Culinary Institute where he graduated top of his class in 1985. Chef François de Mélogue has over 30 years of cross-cultural culinary experience, and brings an impressive culinary history and a unique Mediterranean cooking style. He just released his first cookbook about Provence simply entitled ‘Cuisine of the Sun’.