Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Orb of Joy!

Spring is in the air, which means it's the beginning of artichoke season here in Northern California. YES!Referred to by Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) as "one of the earth's monstrosities", artichokes, those funky-looking, prickly tipped greens globes, are one of the culinary world’s wonders. Few delectables look more foreboding than an artichoke; even fewer reveal such a subtle, sweet-smoke flavor, accentuated by citrus notes and earthy undertones. It’s not easy to eat an artichoke and that seems to be by nature’s design – you have to work for something this sublime and delicious.

I was first served an artichoke in college and couldn’t have been more put off by the steamed green orbs placed on the dinner table. A sorority sister’s family grew them on their ranch in the Central Coast area and the house was the recipient of a recent crop. 100% of the United States' artichoke crop is grown in California, largely concentrated in Monterey County, and also throughout the coastal areas between San Francisco and Santa Barbara, where warm days, foggy mornings and cool evenings make for a perfect ‘choke growing climate. Not being too adventurous in the fresh veggie eating category – I was one of the canned vegetable generation growing up, unfortunately – I was a bit put off by having to politely pull the leaves off this steamed green thing in front of me and then dip it in either mayonnaise or melted butter – both anathema to a college girl watching her weight. But sorority politeness was to be the rule of the day and once I navigated the cumbersome outer leaves and began dipping the tender insides, especially the luscious heart, into mayo, I discovered a flavor sensation my rather naive palate had never experienced. Subtle, sweet yet smoky, and creamy – I never thought a pile of leaves could bring such satisfaction and contentment! As a college grad, living on a limited budget, an artichoke or two, when in season, sustained me for dinner. And today, at prices ranging from $.89 - $1.00 each, they’re still an economical, easy, nutritious and filling lunch or dinner. My sons love them, and the time it takes to peel and eat the leaves adds extra time to the family dinner table – much needed time when one has teens and wants to chat with them!
Italians had long savored this peculiar flower-cum-vegetable – our friend Pliny the Elder and his colleagues enjoyed them as far back as 77 AD and so did many other Romans over the years. We have Catherine de Medici to thank for introducing artichokes to France when she married Henry II in the 16th century. They have been a culinary staple ever since. French immigrants brought the plant with them to colonial Louisiana but with mixed results; though briefly cultivated in the Bayou State, nothing remains today of artichoke farming in the Southern United States.

Once again, it was up to the Italians to spread the love. Italian immigrants in the post-Gold Rush era introduced artichokes, along with broccoli and garlic, to Northern California and created the coastal communities that now grow these plants in abundance. Thank you!! What would mayonnaise be without an artichoke heart to dip it in?

"These things are just plain annoying. After all the trouble you go to, you get about as much actual "food" out of eating an artichoke as you would from licking 30 or 40 postage stamps. Have the shrimp cocktail instead." - Miss Piggy

Oh, just ignore Miss Piggy! She just doesn’t appreciate the effort needed to enjoy an artichoke. But, I’ll compromise with her – add a shrimp cocktail to a steamed artichoke and enjoy the magic!

I have the good fortune to live just over the hill from the charming village of Pescadero. Orignally part of the Mission Santa Cruz pasture land, Juan Jose Gonzalez was given a Mexican land grant in 1833. Not far from the Pacific's cool breezes, with rich, fertile soil, Gonzalez began raising livestock and farming, laying the foundation for Pescadero's agricultural future. 19th century poineer Alexander Moore came to the Pescadero Valley in 1853, establishing the first American presence in the area. By the 1860's, the village's ideal climate and convenient location to shipping made it a center for both farming and the lumber industry that harvested redwood strands in the mountians to the east.

A local gem, Pescadero today is a favorite destination for cyclists, bikers and drivers reveling in the beauty of the Santa Cruz Mountains between the San Mateo County coast and Silicon Valley. Dramatic views of the rugged coastline are accentuated by a visit to Pigeon Point Lighthouse & Hostel and hiking the many trails of  Butano State Park  reveal ancient redwoods and creeks. Pescadero State Beach is the perfect spot for beachcombing and the Pescadero Marsh Preserve across Highway 1 provides excellent bird watching.

For anyone visiting Coastside, a day trip is not complete without savoring a bowl of artichoke soup at Duarte's Tavern in "downtown" Pescadero. Old school does not begin to describe to ambience of this landmark bar, coffee shop, restuarant and bakery. A recipent of the James Beard Foundation's Coca-Cola America's Classic Award in 2003, Duarte's has been serving generations of locals, thousands of tourists and anyone who really enjoys great food for over 60 years. The artichoke soup is a must and the array of local delicacies - cioppino, abalone, dungeness crab - are the perfect follow up to this luscious starter (combine it with the Red Pepper Soup for an even better experience!). AN a meal is not complete without a slice of Oallieberry Pie, a classic recipe created by founder Emma Duarte in the 1930's. A contented drive or ride home will be the capper to an exhilierating and satisfying day at the Coast.

I haven't altered Duarte's Artichoke Soup recipe, really. I just added the Crème Fraiche and the gremolata. Sort of like gilding the lily. Garnish or not, this soup is a spoonful at a time of smokey-sweet artichoke flavor, only without all the work. Miss Piggy would like that!

Creamy Artichoke Soup

Inspired by Duarte's Tavern,
Pescadero, California

8 artichoke hearts and surrounding tender leaves, with choke removed
Juice of 1 lemon added to a bowl of cold water
1 onion, diced
1 bay leaf
2 garlic cloves
2 cups chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream
Salt & pepper to taste
1 tablespoon fresh squeezed lemon juice
For Gremolata:
One large shallot, minced
4 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Zest of 1 lemon
Sour cream or crème Fraiche for garnish

To prepare artichokes - add the juice of one lemon to a bowl of water; remove outer leaves by pulling down on them toward the stem; repeat until you have reached the tender light green/white leaves surrounding the heart. Slice the artichoke in half and remove the feathery "choke" and purplish leaves with a pairing knife and/or a melon baller. Immediately submerge in the lemon water. Repeat with remaining artichokes. Once all artichokes are readied, place in a steamer basket within a large stock pot with 1-2 cups of water; add the bay leaf and the garlic cloves to the basket with the artichokes. Cover, bring the water to a boil and steam the artichokes until they are tender to a knife - approximately 20 minutes. Adjust the heat accordingly. Do not over steam.

While the artichokes steam, heat 1-2 tablespoons of olive oil in a sauté pan and add the diced onions. Lower the heat, cover the pan and let the onion "sweat" until soft, about 10-15 minutes. Do not let them brown as this will add a distinctive onion flavor to the soup.

Once the artichokes are cooked through, remove from the heat and let them cool until you can handle them easily. Remove leaves from the heart - this should be very easy with fresh artichokes - and using a pairing knife, scrap off any "meat" from the leaves. Place the hearts, scrapped "meat" and the steamed garlic in a blender. Reserved the bay leaf. Add one cup of the chicken broth and puree until smooth, adding more chicken broth if necessary.
Pour artichoke puree into a large saucepan, add the cream, 1 tablespoon lemon juice, salt & pepper to taste and the reserved bay leaf. Bring to a gentle boil and then simmer for 12-20 minutes for flavors to blend.
While the soup is simmering, make the gremolata: combine the lemon zest, the minced parsley and the minced shallot in a small bowl.

To serve, remove the bay leaf, ladle warm soup into bowls, add a dollop of sour cream or crème Fraiche and sprinkle to soup with the gremolata.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful story Margie! I can't wait to try this soup - yummmmmmmm