Spring calls for artichokes Roman-style

Consider the thistle:  It hides its tender, buttery heart behind a shield of leathery leaves tipped with sharp spines.  Only an intrepid forager could have discovered its edible secret.  Yet artichokes are now one of the culinary rewards of spring.

Although artichokes are harvested twice a year, I crave them most when they offer a welcome change from the monotony of winter produce.   The crops from nearby Castroville, where most American artichokes are grown, are largest in March through May and the prices dip at the peak of the harvest.

One of my favorite ways to prepare artichokes when I have a little extra time is this luxurious olive oil braise from Judy Rodgers, co-owner and chef of the revered Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, who was named a James Beard Outstanding Chef in 2004.   The recipe from “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook” (Norton, 2002) is her interpretation of the baked artichokes sold by Roman grocers every spring.

All but the outermost leaves become silky and sweet after nearly two hours cooking on a bed of onions, lemons and olives doused in extra virgin olive oil.   The hearts and stems almost melt in your mouth.

The onions are so good they could be served alone as a side dish. The chef suggests using sweet onions such as Vidalias or Walla Wallas but I found that plain yellow onions also work deliciously.

This dish takes more time and advance planning than steaming but the results are worthy of a dinner party.  As a bonus, the leftovers only get better as they sit tightly covered in the refrigerator for up to a couple of days.  I’m always sorry to see them go when the last artichoke is served.

We owe a tremendous debt to that unknown forager who long ago discovered the treasure awaiting in the heart of some thistles.

Serves 8 

2 pounds sweet yellow onions, thinly sliced (about 8 cups)
About 3/4 cup mild extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt
4 garlic cloves, sliced
1/3 cup Nicoise olives, rinsed
12 fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped
1/2 lemon (cut lengthwise)
6 tablespoons dry white wine
4 medium artichokes, leaves tightly closed

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a roasting pan or flameproof baking dish, toss onions with 1/2 cup olive oil, garlic, olives, mint and about 1 1/2 teaspoons salt until all ingredients are nicely coated.  Trim off one end of the lemon to get past the white pith, then slice it in the thinnest possible half moons, removing the seeds as you go and discarding the opposite end.  Add lemon slices to onion mixture, pour over the white wine, toss and let the mixture sit while you trim the artichokes.

Peel stem of each artichoke and trim off the tough end.  Strip off dry or damaged outer leaves.  Slice spines off the leaves with a sharp paring knife or scissors.  Slice artichokes in half and remove the hairy choke in the center with a stainless steel spoon. Rinse artichoke halves in cold water and sprinkle with salt, rubbing it between the leaves.  Drizzle with a little olive oil, being sure to get some between the leaves.

Spread the onion mixture out in the baking pan.  The onions should have wept enough to leave about half an inch of liquid in the pan.  Add a little water if necessary – it will steam the artichokes as they bake.

Tuck artichoke halves into the onion mixture, cut side down, and place the pan over low heat on the top of the stove.  When the liquid in the mixture begins to bubble, press a sheet of parchment paper down onto the artichokes and onions, then tightly cover pan with aluminum foil, dull side out.

Bake for about 1 1/2 hours or until you can easily pull out one of the inner leaves and pierce the base with a small, sharp knife.  The top layer of leaves will be a bit leathery. Raise oven temperature to 400 degrees, uncover the pan and bake for about 15 minutes more.  The tips of the leaves will be lightly browned.

Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Adapted from “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook,” by Judy Rodgers

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