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Artichoke Epiphanies -
Preparations and Pairings to Dispel an Antiquated Myth
By Carole Kotkin

One of my favorite food experiences was encountered at a barbecue held in the central Salinas Valley, just outside of Castroville, California, where vast fields of artichokes blanket the open landscape. It was late spring and the harvest had just begun. Thus the menu included artichokes stuffed with garlic, doused with olive oil and buried in the coal ashes to roast. When their outsides were charred, the thorny spheres were pulled from the ashes and the leaves tugged back to reveal soft, lush interiors. Sprinkled with salt and pepper, the memorable preparation was truly sublime.

A similar epiphany took place on a trip to Rome, practically the birthplace of artichokes. (Modern-day artichokes are presumed to be cultivated versions of those that grew wild in southern Italy, where they were preserved with honey, vinegar and spices and reserved for aristocrats.) I had gotten lost, and then I got hungry. A kindly police officer led me to Piperno, a restaurant in the old Jewish section. There I dined on carciofi alla giudia, a wonder of twice-fried artichoke that comes out of its sizzling olive oil bath at full flavor and flower with four inches of crispy stem sticking up in the air.

Food historians have no idea who first discovered that prickly artichokes could actually be eaten, but consuming one gracefully can be a challenge. The simplest and most time-honored way is to serve a whole steamed artichoke with a small bowl of melted butter and some lemon wedges. Devotees are familiar with the hands-on method: the cooked artichoke is doused with lemon juice, outer leaves are pulled off and dipped in the butter, and the leaf is placed between one's upper and lower teeth and the flesh is scraped free of the leaf. Once all the green leaves have been pulled, any pink, red or purple leaves should be discarded. Hopefully, the cook has removed the choke, and the treasured heart can then be eaten with a spoon.

Eating whole artichokes sans utensils is popular for good reason. For instance, patrons dining at North One 10 in Miami want more than just wonderful food. Chef-proprietor Dewey LoSasso asks, "What better way to break the ice than to serve an old-fashioned, Italian-style breadcrumb- and garlic-stuffed whole artichoke? Diners can settle in and eat with their fingers and drink good wine in true community."

While the pluck-and-dip ritual is arguably rewarding, in Mediterranean countries, where people have been eating artichokes for centuries, no one has the patience for this dainty ceremony. They go right for the heart, whacking off the leaves, scooping out the chokes, trimming the stems and maybe stuffing them, braising them or putting them in a heavy pan under a fat-dripping roast.

Interestingly, it was not Spanish missionaries who introduced this cash crop to California. Nor was it the French, who established commercial production of the vegetable in Louisiana in the 1800s. (They had first "acquired" the artichoke from Italy via Catherine de Medici when she married Henry II in 1533.) Rather it was the Swiss-Italians, who also planted the first wine vineyards in the Salinas Valley, who launched the artichoke there. They planted their fields in the Half Moon Bay area south of San Francisco during the mid-1800s. In 1871, when a chef at San Francisco's Palace Hotel created Green Goddess dressing and served it as a dipping sauce for steamed or boiled artichokes, the ancient vegetable became a proverbial overnight sensation.

Michaela Rodeno, CEO of St. Supéry, recently discovered that the North One 10 menu can be something of an artichoke thrill ride. The winery had just released a 2004 Limited Edition Dollarhide, its first single-vineyard Sauvignon Blanc, and she invited a few writers to test-drive it with LoSasso's artichoke hearts, pierced like kebabs by smoking grapevines and served with garlicky mayonnaise.

"I was beginning to believe the folk wisdom about avoiding wine-artichoke combinations until we arrived at Chef LoSasso's artichoke with aïoli - that worked beautifully with the Sauvignon Blanc. It makes sense: At home we always drink wine with artichokes, served with mayonnaise when time is short or a simple sauce of melted butter seasoned with garlic, lemon, salt and pepper."

Likewise, Chiarello believes in circumventing perceived taboos. "I find the caramelization of roasted or grilled artichokes takes away the raw edge, and allows them to be combined with red wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Petite Sirah. The tannins in these wines are well integrated and bring the wine and the artichokes into harmony."

Making the right match, like winemaking itself, is something of an art, but Simi Winery chef Eric Lee also pairs artichokes and wine with aplomb. "Artichokes leave a notable, astringent bitterness behind," he contends. "Red wine's tannins and oak aging wage war with those of the artichoke and are poor choices. A dry [white] wine with a high acid content, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris, will help to balance this effect." He recommends boiling artichokes in an ample amount of water, in order to eliminate as much of the cynarin as possible, before proceeding with a recipe. He adds salt and seasonings after the artichokes are cooked. "The dressing or sauce served with the artichoke can also affect the wine flavor, often making the pairing work better. Adjusting the sauce by adding acid, such as a citrus juice, enhances the pairing, and sweet ingredients, like crab meat, balance the taste. Creamy dips made with mayonnaise or melted butter coat the palate and counteract the bitterness, too," he says.

St. Supéry winery chef Ron Barber favors Sauvignon Blanc with artichokes. "The wine may appear to have a little more acid, but I kind of like it that way," he notes. "I like to serve artichokes with a homemade mayonnaise combined with fresh chopped parsley and a squeeze of lemon juice. The lemon juice helps bring back a little more of the fruit in the wine." By way of a disclaimer, he adds, "All pairing advice is very subjective," and depending on the wine and recipe, "your results may vary."

Native Californian and former Wente Vineyards chef and cookbook author Kendall Jones, now executive chef at The Carneros Inn in Napa, applies an organic approach that makes for intriguing combinations. "When I develop a recipe, my general approach begins with the wine. I want my choice of wine to taste as it was meant to, not pushed out of balance by the food with which it is served," he comments. He happily matches Domaine Carneros Brut Rosé with artichoke-ricotta fritters accented by Meyer lemon purée. For whites such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio or Albariño, he sautés sweetbreads in brown butter and lavishes the dish with capers, pine nuts and a purée of artichokes - the result is a yin-yang of salty and sweet. He ventures into red territory with Sangiovese, which he drafts for his calzone with artichokes, Westphalian ham, ricotta and Parmesan. "The varietal has a reasonably soft tannic structure and good flavor that is not confounded by the artichoke," he notes.

In Monterey County at Ocean Mist Farms, the largest producer of artichokes in the country, Dale Huss, vice president of production, agrees. "Artichokes are a natural with wine. Both are sensuous experiences." He further suggests that because "artichokes stimulate the liver, you can even have an extra glass or two of wine."

Enough artichokes are grown in California to disprove the axiom that artichokes and wine are incompatible, if only by association. In fact, according to the California Artichoke Advisory Board, the Golden State grows virtually 100 percent of the nation's supply of fresh artichokes. The $150 million dollar industry produces more than 4.1 million cartons of artichokes on 7,000 acres, 75 percent of which is grown in Monterey County, where the cool summers, mild winters, higher humidity, proximity to the ocean and lower evening temperatures are an artichoke's ideal climate. This climatic recipe also favors world-class wine production, supporting the rule that food and wine that share a terroir can be complementary tablemates.

 Unlike wine grapes, artichokes are perennials by nature and produce year-round, yet they are considered a spring crop because high season in California is March through May. A single plant will produce about 35 buds, all on the same stalk, but in three sizes: The largest artichokes weigh about ten ounces, ripen at the top of the plant and are the first to be harvested; the medium-size ones, about seven ounces, tend to be ready a week after the first harvest; and the so-called "baby" artichokes, which sprout at the point where the leaf meets the stalk, ripen last, are picked at their mature size, and usually don't contain chokes.

Artichoke fields, like some vineyards, can be costly to maintain. Hand-harvesting is required, and because of constant growth, the fields may need to be harvested up to 30 times per year. And because the plants cover the ground year round, they offer refuge to pests and diseases that can burrow into the soil. Steve Jordan, partner along with his brother Rusty in Baroda Farms in Santa Barbara, found a solution to these problems by growing artichokes as an annual crop and tilling the seeded plants under every six to eight months (perennials every two years). They also began an artichoke seed program twelve years ago, creating "Big Heart," a cross-bred artichoke with more meat, almost thorn-less leaves, a bigger heart and better flavor.

Baroda Farms, founded in 1973, is one of the few remaining family farms on the Central Coast. "We grow [and ship] about 100,000 boxes of artichokes annually," Jordan says. "We are also importing 15 varieties of Italian and French rootstock." For many growers, leaving on longer stems - as do European farmers supplying their green markets - would be too costly to ship because of the additional bulk. Jordan, however, is harvesting the "Eurochoke," with a meatier leaf and a long, edible stalk, ranging from 8 to 16 inches, and shipping them in larger boxes typically used for cauliflower.

Seed artichokes may be the industry's future, but for now the Green Globe perennial variety accounts for about 90 percent of the artichoke harvest. And for good reason, notes Dale Huss: "Our research and development department has spent many decades developing our artichokes, and we never stop looking for ways to improve the taste. I've traveled the world over - from Brazil, Chile and Peru to Italy, Spain and France - and our Castroville Green Globe is the best in the world, bar none."

The Green Globe is a prime reason Cetrella's executive chef Lewis Rossman was lured from the position of chef de cuisine at Acquarello in San Francisco. He says he found the prospect of working closely with the farmers around Half Moon Bay irresistible. Cetrella restaurant occupies the site of the historic Growers Association building, where farmers once delivered their produce for shipment to urban markets; now they truck their artichokes and other produce to the complex and sell it directly to the shoppers at the Coastside Market in Cetrella's parking lot on Saturdays from April through November. "The Green Globes are so fresh they sing," Rossman says.

Like many California chefs, Rossman has developed countless artichoke recipes. His fritto misto combination - batter-fried Giusti Farms artichokes and royal trumpet mushrooms with asparagus, Swiss Chard stems and lemon - is a house favorite. But his kitchen also roasts, stews and stuffs artichokes; many entrées are served with a side of crisp grilled artichokes; and he often parboils baby artichokes, then slices and browns them in olive oil with shallots. The frequency of the artichoke's billing on the menu is a challenge well met by wine director and sommelier Chris Bradford, who has assembled an international list of more than 400 bottles. "I prefer a light, crisp, non-acidic wine with notes of green apple, like an Austrian Grüner Veltliner, for lighter artichoke preparations, and an Oregon Pinot Blanc for heavier dishes like the fritto misto. Or you could even pair a California Viognier." A particularly apt choice would be Wild Horse's Central Coast Viognier with its charming floral and spice notes.

After all, it only stands to reason that with a vegetable as versatile as the artichoke, one should "leave" the options open.

Food Editor Carole Kotkin manages the Ocean Reef Club Cooking School in Key Largo; is a syndicated columnist for KnightRidder; is co-author of Mmmmiami; and co-hosts Food & Wine Talk on WDNA FM.