Artichoke risotto for Spring


Artichokes were the first new spring veggies to show up at the market this year. Now, they’re everywhere you turn and prices finally have fallen to reasonable levels.

As much as I love these edible thistles, I blanch at the thought of paying $3 per globe, no matter how large and picture perfect. Besides, I really do prefer them smaller, when the stems are more tender and each one is the right size for an individual serving.

At the very beginning of the season, it’s enough to simply steam artichokes with a little garlic and lemon until the base of each leaf is soft enough to scrape the flesh off with your front teeth. The bottom and stem become nutty and sweet.

In the last few weeks, though, I’ve found so-called baby artichokes at the market for as little as 3 for $1. This is the perfect time to cook them in a special dish to celebrate the return of sunny skies and warmer weather.

A traditional risotto is just the ticket. Although it takes more effort than steaming large artichokes, it’s worth it. The texture is rich and creamy, the flavors fresh and faintly herbal. Stir in a little Parmesan and it becomes even more luxurious.

The recipe comes from the original 1991 edition of Viana La Place’s marvelous Italian inspired vegetable cookbook, “Verdura,” (Grub Street Cookery, 2008). I’ve taken few liberties with this classic dish, which hits all the right notes. Don’t be tempted to substitute another form of rice — arborio or carnaroli rice are essential to achieve the right texture.

Artichokes are the flower buds of a plant related to the wild cardoon, a member of the thistle family thought to have its origin in North Africa. The primary harvest season runs from March to May and a smaller crop is harvested in late fall. The different sizes available in the market are the result of growing positions on the plant rather than maturity.

Jumbos grow at the tip of the largest stalks. The smallest buds, labeled babies, grow as offshoots lower on the bushy plant. To my mind, the little ones are the best of all, with tender hearts and stems that require only minimal cooking. They’re the ideal choice for this risotto. If the smallest you can find are mediums, however, just slice the trimmed hearts into thinner segments before cooking.

Preparing the artichokes is the fussiest part of this dish but it goes quickly once you get into the rhythm. I show the steps here (click on a photo to read caption, then click on photo again to return to this post): [nggallery id=3]

Have a bowl of water treated with a little lemon juice or white vinegar waiting on the counter. You’ll submerge the trimmed artichokes in the acidulated water to retard the inevitable browning that occurs when air contacts the cut surfaces. Working quickly, one bud at a time, pull off all the tough outer leaves down to the pale green leaves of the heart. Trim the base and pare the stem with a small, sharp knife. Cut off the tips of the leaves and bottom of the stem, then slice the artichoke in half vertically. Scoop out the hairy choke at the center of the heart with a spoon or knife and cut the artichoke into eighths. Dump the pieces into the water and go on to the next bud.

Now you’re ready to make a risotto worthy of the first weeks of spring.

Serves 4

1 small lemon cut in half
10 baby artichokes
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided use
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and lightly crushed
3 tablespoons chopped Italian parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 cups arborio or carnaroli rice
5 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, plus more for the table

Fill a large bowl with water. Squeeze the juice of one half of the lemon into the water and add the rind for good measure. You’ll use the other half to rub the cut surfaces of the artichokes as you work. Dealing with one bud at a time, snap off all the tough green leaves, trim the dark green areas off base and stem, then cut the tips off the leaves and the bottom off the stalk. Slice in half vertically, remove any hairy choke at the center, then cut each half into quarters. (If the artichokes are especially small, cut the halves into thirds.)

Place 3 tablespoons of the butter, olive oil and garlic cloves in a large, heavy saucepan and cook over low heat until garlic browns lightly. Discard garlic. Drain the artichokes, removing lemon peel, and add them — along with any water still clinging to the leaves — to the pan. Add parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Cook over medium heat until tender, about 15 minutes, adding a little more water if needed to prevent them from drying out.

In another pan, bring the broth to a boil. Turn heat down to a low simmer.

Add rice to the pan with the artichokes and stir until all the grains are coated with the oil and butter and turn opaque. Add the hot broth, a ladle-full at a time, stirring between additions until the liquid is almost absorbed. Each addition of broth should just barely cover the rice. Continue adding broth until the risotto is quite moist and creamy but each grain is still slightly firm in the center, or al dente. Total cooking time should be about 15 – 20 minutes. You may not use all the broth.

Remove pan from the heat and stir in the remaining tablespoon of butter and 5 tablespoons of grated Parmigiano. Serve in shallow bowls with extra grated cheese on the side.

From “Verdura,” by Vianna La Place

8 thoughts on “Artichoke risotto for Spring”

  1. Great pictures on the artichoke prep. Man, I wish I weren’t so lazy to actually prepare my own artichoke hearts. It’s been holding me back on a lot of delicious dishes. 😉

  2. Thanks Sylvia. Start small with just a few little artichokes for a salad and you might find it’s not as much work as you fear. They are impressively good.

  3. Hi Aleta:

    Once again you are making me homesick. The fields of artichokes, in Castroville are out off reach, but not out of mind. This is a yummy recipe. I will try it as soon as I can get to Whole Foods. Which by the way is the only source here, for the best of the best. The photos are great, keep on cooking.

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