Artichokes, asparagus, fava greens, fresh green onions, and so much more begin growing this time of year. Those vegetables scream of a bold appetizer plate or maybe a meal of greens. How healthy. They are examples of bright, beautiful and in-season greens happening here and now.
I grew up in Almaden, California and when visitors came to town, we’d always take them down to Monterey. On the drive, we’d pass artichoke field after artichoke field, and if it was during the month of March and a stand was open, we’d stop.
It is our California vegetable after all, and the artichoke may be the most celebrated thistle on earth. I imagine the growing conditions are similar to that of Italy, where this famous choke seems to have originated, near the Mediterranean Sea.
There are two primary types of artichokes: Globe or round ones and an elongated type called Violetta. You can find both at our Farmers Markets now. Of course, there are many varieties in each category, so ask your farmer about what he/she likes to grow best.
Artichokes are unusual. They are unusual to eat, require work to prepare, but somehow they are deeply satisfying. You remove the leaves individually, and eat only the meat at the end of the leaf, dipping it in a favorite sauce or mayonnaise, and then compost the bulk of the remaining leaf. The artichoke must be cooked, and there are many ways to do that, ask anyone in artichoke capital Castroville, California, but I will share what we did growing up.
Cooked artichokes, Almaden style:
· Cut off the artichoke stem and top or crown, you can also remove the tough outer leaves and thorny remaining ends (some use scissors here). Then, open up the individual leaves as best you can.
· Prepare a mixture of chopped garlic and fresh herbs and place deep inside artichoke leaves (optional).
· Prepare a half-filled pot of boiling water, salted, which can hold your artichokes
· Place prepared artichokes in the pot of water, leaf side up, and drizzle with olive oil and if some goes in the water, that is great!
· Cover and simmer artichokes for 30-45 minutes depending on size – check leaf tenderness
· Remove artichokes and serve warm or cool, with your favorite dipping sauce, and in this case it is a pesto, which we will prepare.
When we bought the farm 20 years ago, we had about an acre of asparagus. It was tough to grow organically on the west end of the orchard near Dry Creek, the previous owners grew it conventionally. We decided to turn the entire property organic, and we removed the asparagus, planting more stone fruit and peach trees. I will always appreciate those beautiful spears popping up, snapping off the top and eating the asparagus right there on the spot (unlike the artichoke), tender and delicious. It also works to grill asparagus, drizzled with a little olive oil, salt and garlic. That’s it, and it takes just a few minutes.
Fava green pesto:
Every fall we plant cover crop in our orchard. Each year we conduct both leaf and soil tests, and based on the results, put together a mix of cover crop that makes sense for the property. Most years, there is some fava in the mix, for nitrogen and other purposes. The fava is a beautiful plant, and the greens are broad and flavorful. I pick some tender fava leaves, add green onions, and use them for the pesto base. Then I chop garlic, add Parmesan, walnuts, olive oil, and salt. Mix all together in a Cuisinart or blender and adjust ingredients so it is the desired flavor and texture.
Now your appetizer is ready. Plate your artichokes, grilled asparagus, with fresh pesto on the side, and maybe a little mayonnaise or aioli. Sprinkle with some yellow mustard flowers. Spring is here, dig in.
Next Month: Cake
Gayle Okumura Sullivan is co-owner, with husband Brian, of Dry Creek Peach & Produce in Healdsburg.