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The Art of the Choke

by Elizabeth Norcross

Is there a more glorious plant than the artichoke? Extraordinarily versatile and delicious, she is the Queen of all vegetables. Globe shaped with lovely silky green leaves with prickly thorns and purple thistles, she reigns supreme in presentation and flavor. Immature thistles if left on the stem blossom into gorgeous purple flowers. Artichokes have been around for thousands of years. Recipes and ways to prepare and serve are ad infinitum.
A medium artichoke has only twenty-five calories, is high in fiber including sixteen essential nutrients like Vitamin C and is rich in powerful antioxidant properties.

Cultivated all over the world, California has the U.S. monopoly since 100% are grown there; 80% in Monterey County, with Castroville declaring itself the “Artichoke Capital of the World” celebrating with an annual festival.

This year was my big discovery of Ocean Mist Artichokes (from Castroville).  Excellent, healthy, fresh  and clean they’ve been available since March.  In April and May  there were baby artichokes at the market, six to a package for less than $4.00.  I don’t know where you live, but on Martha’s Vineyard you can’t get six of anything for under $4.00 so I was dubious. It was my first experience with baby artichokes and what a thrill. Small and sweet the thistle hasn’t  formed so once cooked you can just pop it in your mouth choke and all.

In Spain, the more tender, younger and smaller artichokes are commonly used,  sprinkled with olive oil and left in hot ashes in a barbecue;  sautéed in olive oil with garlic; with rice as a paella or sautéed and combined with eggs in a tortilla (frittata).

Then came the jumbo chokes, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Gigantic with meaty  leaves and a huge heart, big enough to stuff or put a poached egg on. Pure  heaven.  Deliciously meaty with a captivating flavor.

Recently when making  dinner  for a chef friend he brought a gift of olive oil from Crete, called ‘Aria’, along with some French Boursin cheese. I watched as he made a dip by drizzling the oil over a chunk of Boursin in a bowl. Truly an amazing mouthwatering combination.  I have had it every day since that dinner. I also found an even better oil for the dip at Fred Fisher’s farm market,  an organic Spanish oil made from Arbequina olives called ‘Jansal Valley’. Highly recommended, it’s very light with no heavy oily aftertaste.

When shopping for artichokes look for round, compact and green. If there’s any question
in your mind, put to your ear and squeeze, there should be a squeak if it’s fresh.
The large ones take 40-45 minutes to boil or steam. The smaller ones about 35 minutes.
It takes a little practice. If overcooked it becomes soggy and if undercooked the meat doesn’t scrape off  the  leaves with your teeth. The way to eat a nicely cooked artichoke is to take a leaf at a time,  dip it into whatever sauce you’re using and scrape the meat off the bottom end of the leaf. When the outer leaves are gone there will be an inverted V-shaped little tower. The top isn’t edible but I don’t waste a bit of it and still dip the bottom in the sauce and eat around the edge of it. Then the heart is exposed with the hairy choke in the bottom. Carefully cut around the edge and pull it out or scoop it out with a spoon. Once you get used to it you can do it with your fingers – carefully so as not to break the heart.
When I first started eating artichokes they were stuffed.  My favorite French restaurant served them as an hors d’oeuvre,  though it’s a meal in itself.  Stuffed with sausage or prociutto, garlic, fresh herbs, bread crumbs and drizzled with oil or butter.  When making them at home I added a bit of feta cheese. Spread the leaves apart so that you can get to the choke. When you get to the top of the upside down ‘V tower’ pull it out. Remove the choke from the heart. You can stuff them with anything you like. This is the way Martha Stewart does it:

Stuffed Artichokes
2 lemons
4 medium artichokes
3 cups fresh breadcrumbs
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/3 cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese
6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh oregano
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper

1.Preheat oven to 350* degrees. Zest one lemon; set zest aside. Cut the lemon in half, and squeeze juice into a large bowl of water, add lemon rinds. Trim artichokes; working with one at a time, snap off tough outer bottom leaves. Cut off upper third of artichoke. Snip remaining leaf tips with scissors. Trim long stem, leaving a flat bottom. Peel stem and place in acidulated water. Gently spread artichoke leaves away from center, revealing choke. Remove choke with a spoon and discard. Place artichoke in acidulated water. Repeat with remaining artichokes.

2.In a medium bowl, combine breadcrumbs, Parmigiano and Pecorino cheeses, 4 tablespoons oil, parsley, oregano, and lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper. Remove artichoke stems from water, and drain well. Chop finely, and stir into breadcrumb mixture.

3.Remove artichokes from water, and drain well. Fill each artichoke with 1/4 of breadcrumb mixture; spread leaves to allow stuffing to sit inside, and mound stuffing on top. Place 1/2 cup water in bottom of a 9-by-9-inch baking dish. Fit artichokes into baking dish. Drizzle with remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Cover with aluminum foil. Bake until heart is soft when pierced with the tip of a knife, 30 to 40 minutes. Remove foil; bake until breadcrumbs are golden brown, about 10 minutes more. Cut remaining lemon into wedges, and serve on the side.

The aroma that wafts from this wonderful recipe is heavenly.  It doubles the enjoyment.
I’ve been experimenting with artichoke recipes all summer and this is my new favorite, an absolute crowd pleaser that I’m dying to share. It’s a knock-out!  First boil the chokes: gauge your measurements on the number being served – this will serve four:

Artichoke  a la Caviar
2 artichokes
Sour cream or crème fraîche
Small jar Lumpfish caviar (or Beluga!)
Finely minced fresh chives
6 – 8 Garlic cloves
Fresh sprigs of garden Tarragon
Fresh Rosemary
Sea salt

With a pair of scissors go around the artichoke and trim off the thorny tops of each leaf. With a knife cut of the top, about ¼ of an inch so all pricky parts are snipped off.  Evenly slice the bottom so it sits flat. If they are jumbo artichokes scrape the long stems with a vegetable peeler and cut into coins.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the garlic cloves to the water along with fresh sprigs of tarragon and rosemary from the garden.

Place rinsed and ‘groomed’ artichokes directly into a pot of rapidly boiling water. It doesn't matter how the artichokes are placed into the pot since they will float when cooking. Cover the pot with the lid and let cook at a high simmer on stove until they are tender. Cooking time can vary, depending on the size. A good approximation is 30 minutes for a medium-sized artichoke or 45 minutes for a jumbo-sized artichoke. If steaming place upside down in the basket.

When the leaves begin to fall off and a a knife easily slides through the heart they are done. Remove with tongs or slotted spoon or and let cool.

Remove the leaves from one artichoke, clean and set the heart aside. With a knife slice the bottom of the second choke so it sits flat on a plate or platter. Pull the leaves apart (but not off); remove the ‘V tower’ and the choke..

Arrange the leaves around the sitting artichoke; put a dollop of sour cream or crème fraîche on each bottom meaty part of the leaf. Next a bit of caviar, then some minced chive. Fill the bowl of the artichoke with sour cream and cover with caviar so the leaves of the sitting artichoke can be dipped when the prepared ones are finished. This is spectacular. The perfect complement is champagne, cleansing the palate of the sweetness, bubbly and dry, ready to renew the heavenly flavor..

I hope you enjoy this, I did!
As Julia would say, Bon Appetite~