My first encounter with fresh artichokes off the bush was a springtime journey 25 years ago to Crete. Walking through the village, we would snap the giant thistle buds right off the bush, eating them raw. Most often, my great aunt Yeorgia would cook them in dishes like Aginara Stefado (artichoke stew) with fennel, carrots, celery, lemon and onions. She accompanied the fragrant stew with rice pilafi and hard crusted bread to sop with, it was a perfect meal for the season.
Over the years, I served artichokes regularly at Inn Season Café. We found a surprising number of people to be unaware of how to eat this most ancient vegetable, therefore causing us to use them inside dishes instead of serving them baked, braised, steamed or stuffed as a full globe. Maybe people were fearful of the aptly named choke, but I still tried, pointing out the sensual nature and satisfying experience of eating them one leaf at a time. By the time the artichoke is finished, one usually feels quite full.
One of my favorite dishes used baby artichokes. Pre-cooking them allowed us to remove some of the outer leaves to reach a completely edible and exquisitely tender heart and choke. Sautéing them with garlic and pine nuts, they would be dressed with a light creamy sauce and served over pasta; either homemade fettuccini or a high quality udon noodle (similar to linguini). We served it in two versions, one vegan and one not. These days, I make it without animal products.
This week at the Hillcrest Market, Sage Mountain Farms had the beginning of the local crop of organic artichokes. I also harvested our first artichoke from the large bushes in the back yard. Excited to do a taste test, I cut them in half, removed the chokes and roasted them in the oven Sicilian style with garlic, extra virgin olive oil and oregano. It wasn’t a fair comparison because the Sage Mountain artichokes had already been harvested for over 24 hours, while our home garden grown globes had only been picked 30 minutes before cooking. They both had an intense artichoke flavor that practically shouted Mediterranean at me, but the home grown was perfect…tender, creamy and sensual. The season has just begun and with a number of chokes developing on the bushes; it promises to be an auspicious beginning to a great summer of freshly harvested food.