As vegetables go, artichokes aren't easy. They are troublesome to prepare and messy to eat. But inside the thorny exterior is a vegetable that has been prized for its unique flavor since ancient times.
Artichokes are thought to be native to Sicily. The plant is mentioned in Greek and Roman literature as far back as 77 A.D. Italians have been cooking artichokes for centuries. They boil them, fry them, bake them, and put them in sauce for pasta.
When Italian immigrants came to California in the late 1800s, they soon planted their prickly favorite. The first commercial artichoke fields were planted in Castroville in the 1920s.
Castroville proclaims itself the artichoke capital of the world and celebrates with an artichoke festival, which will be held May 15 and 16 this year. Marilyn Monroe, then a young unknown, was crowned the festival's California Artichoke Queen in 1948.
Castroville is also home to the Giant Artichoke restaurant, which serves its favorite vegetable in many ways, from soup to bread. Judging from restaurant reviews in Yelp, the food is not great, except for the deep fried artichoke hearts.
Duarte's Tavern in Pescadero is famous for artichoke soup, made with baby artichoke hearts, cream, chicken broth and other good things.
Most of us are familiar with the large globe artichoke, but baby artichokes, long known to Italian cooks, have become trendy in the food world. Both Bon Appetit and Sunset magazines feature them in articles this spring.
Baby artichokes are fully mature artichokes that grow closer to the ground, sheltered by the large leaves of the plant. They are easy to cook and prepare because the inner fuzzy portion of the choke does not develop.
To prepare them, snap off the lower petals until you reach the yellow-green core. Use a knife and cut of the top half-inch of the baby artichoke. Trim the stems and all remaining dark green areas from the base. Baby artichokes can be steamed over rapid boiling water for 15 to 20 minutes until tender. They may also be grilled, roasted or sauteed.
'The whole artichoke'
Penne with baby artichokes was one of the pasta specials that Maria Nevigato prepared recently at Cedro Ristorante Italiano in Menlo Park. Cedro is a family affair, with Maria as chef, her daughter Elizabeth as manager, and Elizabeth's father Giuseppe and brother David helping out.
Although not of Italian descent, Maria Nevigato is a "born-again Italian" who learned to cook from her Italian-born mother-in-law, also named Maria. "She was like a second mom to me," the younger Maria says.
Growing up in Menlo Park and East Palo Alto, Maria started cooking when she was about 9. One of the first things she learned to make was gnocchi, which she called "little pillows."
Penne with baby artichokes is a dish Nevigato says she can put together easily. "The beautiful thing about it is you can eat the whole artichoke."
Cedro sometimes also features a whole roasted globe artichoke as an a la carte special. It is served with a lemon caper sauce.
On the menu
An extra-large roasted artichoke, served with shrimp and crab, is the most popular item on the menu at Buck's of Woodside, according to owner Jamis MacNiven, who says Buck's sells 15,000 artichokes a year.
The roasted artichoke entree is also featured in the WoodHouse Fish Co. restaurants operated in San Francisco by Jamis' sons, Rowan and Dylan.
A popular appetizer at Carpaccio in downtown Menlo Park is an artichoke bottom with bay shrimp and herb sauce. It's been on the menu for as long as I can remember and is a customer favorite.
At Marche restaurant on Santa Cruz Avenue, chef Guillaume Bienaime prepares a barigoule of artichoke, fennel and prosciutto served with California white bass. The Web identifies a barigoule as an artichoke stew, prepared with fresh artichoke hearts. Bienaime says his barigoule is more of a garnish for the fish.
One fondly remembered dish I haven't seen on a menu for years is a stuffed artichoke, which was a popular item at Mama Leone's old-time restaurant in New York City. As I recall, the stuffing was made from bread crumbs, sausage, parmesan cheese, parsley and garlic.
The trend today is toward simple preparation, letting the unique taste of the elegant artichoke shine through.
Penne with Baby Artichokes
(Penne con Carciofi)
6 baby artichokes
4 fresh tomatoes, diced
4 garlic cloves
Extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup lemon juice
Sprig of rosemary
1 T. fresh basil
After rinsing artichokes, snap off lower petals until you reach the yellow-green core. Use a knife and cut of the top half-inch of the baby artichoke, or just below the green tips of the petals. Trim the stems and all remaining dark-green areas from the base. Cut artichokes into quarters and place in 4 cups ice water with 1/2 cup lemon juice or vinegar to keep them from discoloring while you work.
Place artichokes in small pot with two cups of water, mashed garlic clove, 1 teaspoon olive oil, sprig of rosemary, and salt to taste. Cook for 15 to 20 minutes, until tender. Strain artichokes and put aside.
While artichokes are cooking, put 2 tablespoons olive oil, teaspoon of minced garlic, teaspoon of minced onion in sauce pan over medium heat. Add two cups fresh tomatoes. Bring to simmer and saute for 3 to 5 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add artichokes and basil.
Serve over penne, top with basil leaves and parmesan cheese.