Sunday, April 5, 2009

At Market...Baby Artichokes

It's artichoke season here in California and this morning I bought the most adorable purple baby artichokes at the farmers' market. Not true babies, these little lovelies are actually full-grown artichokes that grow low on the stalk under the "real" one. Delightfully tender and easy to prepare, they lack the inedible hairy choke that is typically found in the center the larger ones. Artichokes are decidedly a California (and Mediterranean) crop, having much difficulty growing anywhere else in the states. In fact, California provides nearly 100% of all the artichokes for the United States, with 80% being grown in or near Castroville (the self-titled Artichoke Capital of the World). Artichokes are a member of the thistle family and are the bud on this large perinneal plant. They have triangular shaped scales or leaves and the larger variety has sharp spikes on the tips which must be snipped off before cooking. Read more about the humble artichoke from Martha Rose Shulman here. I met her recently and she is a wealth of information (and inspiration).

For tonight's dish, I removed the tougher outer leaves (be seems like there are more leaves discarded than left on the flower), revealing the tulip shaped, tender middle. Then I chopped off the top third or so, and finally halved each artichoke (as seen above). The artichokes were immediately placed in a bowl of acidulated water, which is a just fancy way of saying lemon water. (To make it, I simply fill a bowl with water and squeeze in the juice of one lemon. If you don't soak them, the artichokes will get discolored, as does a cut apple or avocado. It won't hurt you, but it's not all that pretty). The prepared artichokes were then boiled in a large pot (I used the same one to boil the pasta) for about 7 minutes or until tender. Then I cut each half in half again and sauteed them in a large non-stick skilled until they were slightly golden. After that, I added about 1/2 C of stock (I used mushroom, but chicken or vegetable would taste good too), and stirred occasionally until the liquid evaporated. Then the artichokes were ready to toss with the hot pasta. They were quite flavorful, but I must say that I was disappointed that they lost most of their bright purple hue after they were cooked.

Artichoke Mushroom Pasta

1 pound baby artichokes, outer leaves removed and trimmed as shown above
1 pound raw Italian sausage in casing
1 package crimini mushrooms, sliced
1/2 C stock (mushroom/vegetable/chicken)
1 1/2 C heavy cream
1/4 C good dry white wine
1 T chopped fresh thyme
1 clove garlic, grated
salt and pepper
1 pound of pasta (curly or bow ties is good)
Parmesan cheese

Bring large pot of salted water to boil. Meanwhile remove tough outer leaves of artichokes, cut off top third, and cut in half. Immediately place in a bowl of acidulated water.

Begin cream sauce for pasta. Add cream, wine, grated garlic, 1 t salt, 1/2 t pepper, and chopped thyme to medium saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat to low, and continue to simmer, until reduced by one third (about 10-15 minutes).

Heat a swirl of olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Snip off ends of sausage and squish out small meatball-sized hunks of meat into skillet. Brown sausage, turning occasionally until cooked through, about 5 minutes. Remove. In same skillet, saute mushrooms with a pinch of salt until tender, about 5 minutes. Remove from pan. Turn off heat.

Once large pot of water is boiling, add artichokes and boil until artichoke stems are tender when pierced with a knife, about 5-7 minutes. Remove from water. Add pasta to same large pot of water and cook according to package directions.

Heat same skillet again over medium heat, adding more olive oil if necessary. Add artichokes and saute for about 5 minutes, or until golden. Add stock and simmer, uncovered, until all liquid has evaporated. Turn heat to low and return mushrooms and sausage to skillet to keep warm.

When pasta is cooked, place in a large bowl. Pour cream sauce over and toss gently to combine. Add sausage, mushrooms and artichokes and toss again. Sprinkle over some freshly grated Parmesan cheese. Taste for seasoning and serve.

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