Native to the western and central Mediterranean, the artichoke is a domesticated variety of the wild cardoon. Cardone, in Italian, is a thistle and looks like large stocks of celery. My grandmother used to coat them in breadcrumbs and fry them. They were amazing. Unlike an artichoke, you eat the stems not the flower buds. This unusual vegetable can be grilled, stuffed, baked and fried. I also use them to make pesto, soup and frittata. The artichoke is actually the bud of a plant from the thistle family and at full maturity, the plant grows to a width of about six feet and a height of three to four feet. If not harvested from the plant, the bud will eventually blossom into a beautiful, blue-violet flower, which is not edible. The bud contains the heart, the delightful, meaty core of the artichoke, and is topped by a fuzzy center (or choke) which is surrounded by rows of petals that protect the artichoke heart. With their tiny thorns, the artichoke’s petals reveal their thistle heritage. The thorns aren’t a problem if handled carefully, as they do soften in cooking.
Baby artichokes come from the same plant as their bigger brothers. The size of an artichoke is determined by their placement on the plant. The little ones, although fully mature, are born way down among the shady plant fronds where they are protected from the sun’s toughening and growth rays. This means they have not developed the fuzzy portion of the choke in the center that does develop in the full-size globe artichokes. The beauty of preparing the smaller ones is that the entire baby artichoke can be eaten whole, including the stem!
Baby artichokes are available year round, however you will find them in greater supply during the spring months of March, April and May. Their size can vary from that of a walnut to a jumbo egg. Size is not an indication of age (some babies are just bigger than other babies).
This past week, I was with my family in beautiful Monterey, California. The weather was perfect! We took a drive to Castroville (artichoke capital of the world), to visit fourth generation Pezzini Italian Farms. We enjoyed deep-fried artichokes al fresco and stocked up on hand-harvested heirloom artichokes, strawberries and other delicious goodies.
This is a simple recipe to put together, however the artichokes are best left to marinate overnight. Enjoy as a light bite with a chuck of sourdough bread and a glass of sparkling water or wine. If you wish to add a few more small bites to the table and invite a friend or two to share them with, I suggest one or more of the following:
- 12 Baby artichokes
- 2 Lemons (1 juiced/1 zested)
- 1 Tablespoon salt
- 5 Tablespoons Extra-Virgin olive Oil
- 1/2 Teaspoon sea salt
- 1 Garlic clove, minced
- 1 Tablespoon fresh oregano, minced
- Lemon pepper
- Red pepper flakes, pinch
- Rinse the artichokes in running water or in a sink of cold water.
- Cut a thin slice off the top of each artichoke.
- In a large pot, bring 3-inches of water to a boil, then add the juice of 1 lemon, 1 tablespoon salt and the chokes.
Return to a boil. Partially cover and gently boil 25-35 minutes, until tender. Drain. Set aside.
- In a small bowl, whisk together the juice of 1 lemon (1/4 cup), olive oil and salt. Add the garlic, oregano, lemon zest and lemon pepper (or black if that’s what you have) and red pepper flakes.
- Cut the artichokes in half or quarters, depending on their size. Arrange in a single layer in a shallow bowl (I use I glass pie dish). Spoon the marinade over each choke. Cover and refrigerate overnight. Bring to room temperature before serving.