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How did artichokes become California’s official state veggie?

When Gavin Newsom was our lieutenant governor, he declared the artichoke our official state vegetable.

The declaration, made on April 11, 2013, was the result of a poll taken by a Bay Area radio station, and surprisingly, this time the public got it right. We are the world’s leading producer of this delicious thistle, and the start of its peak season has begun.

The artichoke’s presence in our state is nowhere more visible than in Castroville, the small Monterey County town that declared itself the artichoke center of the world. Castroville celebrates its official vegetable with a huge statue, roadside stands and cafes making deep-fried artichokes and other artichoke dishes and a festival, founded in 1959, that will return this year in June.

The tradition of crowning an annual Artichoke Queen stretches back even further, to 1949, when the first Artichoke Queen — a then-unknown Norma Jean Baker who later became Marilyn Monroe — was anointed by Castroville’s artichoke farmers.

Artichokes are native to Sicily. Italian immigrants established the first plants in California in the 19th century. Today nine counties — Monterey, San Mateo, Santa Cruz, San Benito, Sutter, Ventura, Santa Barbara, Orange and Imperial — grow virtually all the commercial artichokes harvested in the United States, yielding nearly 4 million cartons each year. In Monterey, the plants are ubiquitous; I remember driving through the peninsula where for miles there seemed to be nothing but vast fields of silvery, sage-green plants cloaked in a blanket of Pacific fog.

Fog is essential to artichokes. Freezes are, too, which bodes well for this year’s crop. Freezes sometimes cause brown discoloration on outer leaves; this does not hurt the artichokes but improves their flavor and texture.

In recent years, varieties other than the ubiquitous Green Globe artichoke have been taking up most of the space in the produce sections of local markets. These artichokes, some which are organic, are squat, with rounded instead of pointed tips. They are thornless and have a dark green hue tinged with deep purple. When you squeeze them, there is typically a lot of give.

I recommend passing by these artichokes. They have less meat, are trickier to cook and lack the full flavor of the Green Globe variety. Yet they are popular because people think no thorns is a benefit. It is not. It’s similar to seedless watermelon, grown not for flavor but for having no seeds.

Oliver’s Market has made a point of featuring Green Globe artichokes at its stores, which are now often described as a vintage variety. Imwalle Gardens in Santa Rosa also offers the Green Globe variety.

If you doubt what I say, do a taste test. Cook both varieties simply, by boiling in salted water or steaming until tender but not mushy. Then taste them side-by-side.

Because we’re in California, why would you use canned or frozen artichokes? Delicious fresh artichokes are ours for the taking, from now through early summer and then again in the fall, when there is typically a bumper crop. Then there are those little jars of tiny artichokes in olive oil, vinegar and herbs. Love them? Have at it, but don’t use them in recipes.

The tapenade here is one of my most requested recipes ever. It can be used in many dishes, from this simple appetizer to sandwiches and pastas.

Bruschetta with Artichoke Tapenade and Crème Fraîche

Makes 4 to 6 servings

Kosher salt

4 - 5 large artichokes, ½ to 1 inch of tops sliced off

2 - 3 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

⅓ cup lightly toasted and chopped walnuts

1 teaspoon brined green peppercorns, drained

Grated zest of 1 lemon

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh snipped chives

6 ounces crème fraîche

Black pepper in a mill

1 loaf sourdough hearth bread, cut into ⅜-inch-thick slices

Fill a saucepan (big enough to hold the artichokes upright and at least 2 inches deeper than the artichokes are tall) half full with water and season with a generous 2 tablespoons of salt.

If necessary, cut the artichoke stems so they are flush with the bodies. Nestle them in the water; you might need to set something on top of them to keep them immersed. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, cover the pan and cook for 20 minutes.

Remove one artichoke from the pot, turn it top side down and press a toothpick or bamboo skewer into the center of the heart. If there is just a bit of resistance, the artichokes are done. If it is hard or impossible to pierce the heart, cook for another 15 minutes and test again. Be sure to leave a bit of resistance so the hearts are not mushy.

Remove the artichokes from the water and set aside to drain and cool. When easy to handle, remove the small outer leaves and discard them. Pull off the remaining leaves and set them aside. Remove and discard the choke and cut away any dark spots on the hearts.

Cut the hearts into ¼-inch dice and transfer to a medium bowl. Add the garlic, walnuts, peppercorns, lemon zest, lemon juice, olive oil and half the snipped chives. Toss well, taste and correct for salt and for acid balance. Set aside.

Put the crème fraîche in a small bowl, add the remaining chives, season with salt and pepper and stir well.

Toast or grill the bread by your preferred method.

Set the crème fraîche, artichoke heart mixture and artichoke leaves on a platter and pile the bread alongside. Use the crème fraîche as a dip for the leaves and smear it over the bread before topping with the artichoke heart mixture.

Artichokes and Dungeness crab go together beautifully. Sometimes I fill braised artichokes, cut in half and chilled, with crab Louis and sometimes I toss both with a thin pasta. Here, I top a creamy artichoke risotto with crab, but if you don’t want to add it, the risotto will still be delicious.

Artichoke Risotto with Fresh Dungeness Crab

Makes 3 to 6 servings

4 large Green Globe artichokes, boiled until tender and cooled

¼ cup olive oil

1 yellow onion, cut into small dice

5 - 6 garlic cloves, crushed and minced

Kosher salt

1 ¼ cups Vialone Nano or Carnaroli rice

5 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade, hot

Grated zest of 1 lemon

¾ cup medium-moisture cheese, such as Vella Mezzo Secco

1 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley leaves

Black pepper in a mill

Chilled meat from 1 Dungeness crab (optional)

Olio Nuovo or best-quality extra-virgin olive oil (optional)

Lemon wedges

Pull the leaves off the artichokes and set them aside. Remove the thistle-like choke, scraping away all of it from the hearts. Trim away any dark spots on the outer part of the hearts. Cut each heart into thin slices and cut the slices in half. Cut the meat from the tips of the leaves. Set both the hearts and the leaf meat aside, but keep them separate.

Pour the olive oil into a large saucepan or saucier and set over medium heat. Add the onion and saute until it is soft and fragrant, about 12 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 1 minute more. Season with salt.

Add the rice and stir with a wooden spoon until each grain has turned milky white. Begin adding stock, a half cup at a time, stirring all the while. Adjust the heat as necessary so the stock does not evaporate quickly nor sit without simmering. Continue until the rice is nearly but not quite fully tender; it should take about 18 minutes. If you run out of liquid, add some stock or water to the pot.

Stir in the artichoke hearts, then add the lemon zest and season with salt. Stir, add the cheese, taste, correct for salt, add several generous turns of black pepper and add the remaining stock. The risotto should be thick but a bit loose.

Divide among individual soup plates or bowls and scatter some of the reserved leaf meat over each portion. Top with some of the crab meat, if using, and drizzle with a bit of olive oil. Garnish with lemon wedges and enjoy right away.

Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including “California Home Cooking.” Email her at michele@micheleannajordan.com.

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