Tuesday, March 10, 2009

In Hopes of Spring Day 1: Artichoke & Lemon Pasta

An edible thistle? sign me up.
I got this picture here.

What better to jump-start the Springtime series than a light and delicious pasta dish with Springtime ingredients?

It was one of a very few but lovingly hoped-for sunny days sometime about a month ago when I got the inspiration for this pasta dish. I was, as usual, flipping through one of my many food magazines when I saw mention of one of the most delicious upcoming seasonal ingredients: artichokes.

I keep a couple of jars of artichokes in olive oil in the pantry, just in case I ever get the urge, but I tend to use them only in dire desperation. Artichokes are one of those vegetables that, to me, lose
part of their mystique when you don't get to clean and cook them yourself. There's just something about trimming the little tips, cutting off the stem, and peeling away the older, uglier leaves that makes me feel like a Roman matrona preparing dinner in Sicily. I love baby artichokes, but I love the big mama artichokes too. You can steam them, boil them, batter and fry them, or even eat them raw (as I learned from Matt), but whatever you do, they are most delicious, I think, when you can taste their subtle, meaty flavor without having to fight a million others at the same time.

Sadly, despite their growing season being March through May, it was still too cold here in the
UK to find them in great abundance in the supermarkets when I decided to make this recipe, not to mention, the ones I could have found would have been ridiculously expensive and not so nice looking. So, a little deflated but determined nonetheless, I ventured to "the bodega" as Matt refers to my copiously and shamelessly crammed pantry, to take out one of my jars of artichoke hearts.

The sunshine abundantly flying through my living room windows seemed reason enough to make a light-filled Italian dish which requires little fuss and ingredients which can generally already be found in one's kitchen. But first, a little on artichokes and why I find them to be a particularly interesting, and aesthetically pleasing vegetable.

* * *

Three Interesting Tidbits Relating to the Vegetable with a Heart: The Artichoke

"Artichokes" by Clare Malloy;
glad I'm not the only one who finds them aesthetically pleasing.

3. Ancient Artichokes: a brief and glossed-over history thereof
The nerdy Classicist in me has an obsession with finding out the origins of all things edible. It really bothers me, for example, when people say that coffee comes from Colombia, or Potatoes are Irish, or, worse yet, chili peppers are Indian (which they are NOT!). With my obsessive and valiantly edifying nature in mind, I looked into the origins of Artichokes and found that my Italocentric view of them was not far off.

Artichokes may have come from North Africa or they may have come from somewhere in the European Mediterranean. The only thing that's clear is that they were widely used in Roman and Greek cooking thousands of years ago, and continue to be used by them today (hence my assumption that they are Italian). It was, however, the Greeks that introduced them to the Romans (like with everything else important) and the Romans who introduced them to everybody else. It wasn't until the mid 16th Century that Artichokes came to the UK, introduced to Henry VIII by the Dutch, oddly enough. Who knows how they got there, but I'm glad they did.

2. The Aesthetic of the Thistle: Why Artichokes are Pretty
I don't know about you, but a big part of what I like to eat is determined by what looks good. While the artichoke may not be as alluring as, say, a sauteed prawn, it ranks rather high on my list of aesthetically pleasing edible things, not least because of the beautiful colors and unorthodox shape it has.

Artichokes come in the loveliest shades of green and purple. The green is new enough to look alive, but muted enough to be wild. And the purple is sometimes so bright, so ethereal, you have to wonder whether nature was sending a warning sign. In shape, artichokes look to me like a combination between a flower and a giant, leafy, upside down acorn. In short, they look like a giant thistle (or sticker burr, if you're Texan), and that's exactly what they are. This prickly nature draws me to them more (much like my obsession with eating Nopales or Mexican Cactus) because they are a food you have to work for to prepare and eat in peace. As the saying goes: every rose has its thorn. Artichokes, prett
y as they are, come equipped with deceptively small little spiny claws at their leaf tips which need to be ripped or snipped off before consumption. As enticing as their healthy verdant leaves are, as bewitching as the bright purple blossoms of the artichoke plant may be, do us all a favor and don't forget to cut off the thorns. :)

Ah, Artichoke blossoms.
I got this picture here.

In my search for all things Artichoke-related, I came across a Midwestern artist who seemed to agree with my predilection for Artichokes. Check out some of Clare Malloy's paintings which, though probably a little too minimalist and clean for my taste, are nevertheless rather pretty. Especially the artichoke one, which I've displayed above.

Artichoke Festivals and Ice Cream -The Final Frontier?
While natural cultivation of the artichoke, as mentioned above, was historically generally confined to Southern Europe and the Mediterranean, with Italy and Spain still leading the charge in modern day, our prickly friend can also be found in great abundance in none other than California (what doesn't grow there?!). I always tell Matt I want to move to California just because of the amazing garden / orchard I could have. Turns out, actually, that California grows nearly 100% of all artichokes in the US, and about 80% of those are grown in Monterrey County, which happens to include a little town by the name of Castroville.

Castroville gets an honorable mention on my blog today because they have, despite their puny size (pop. well under 10,000) and otherwise unremarkable existence, hoisted themselves into national stardom by proclaiming themselves "The Artichoke Center of the World" (very American of them isn't it?). (Thanks to Roadside America for the lovely picture of Jack Fitzgerald next to the Giant Artichoke in Castroville.)

Along with this title, they have also taken it upon themselves to host the annual "Castroville Artichoke Festival" every May for the past many, many, years (where Marilyn Monroe was crowned the
first ever Artichoke Queen in 1948, incidentally), where people from all over the globe gather to celebrate and devour everyone's well-loved thistle in more forms than we can (or would choose to) imagine. They even make Artichoke Ice Cream. I'll try almost anything once. :)

NB: Interestingly, the Italian link sticks: Castroville's artichoke production is rumored to have been started in the 1920s by the same Swiss Italian immigrants who also started the first wine vineyards in "American's Salad Bowl" (Salinas Valley, California). Who knew? Roman imperial domination continued well into the 20th century.

* * *

Artichoke & Lemon Pasta
Serves 2

I first started eating artichokes when I moved to Italy. Italians put them in everything - pasta dishes, meat dishes, salads - you name it. The first time I tried to cook them I boiled the heck out of them for over an hour, not knowing exactly how to make heads or tails of whether an artichoke was "done" or not. Don't make the same mistake as me!

For this recipe, Iused ready-prepared artichoke hearts. I think pairing them with fresh lemon juice and zest gives back a little spring to the marinated hearts, and I always keep a little fresh parmesan around the house, without which this dish would be lost. Hope it brings as much sunshine to your day as it did to mine.


1 jar Artichoke hearts (100g), in olive oil or water, chopped into large chunks
1 lemon, zested & juice of 1/2 the lemon
2 tbsps good olive oil
1 handful flat-leaf parsley, roughly chopped
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese (the real stuff), plus more for garnishing
1 lb bag of tagliatelle pasta (substitute fettuccine if you can't find tagliatelle)
salt & freshly ground pepper


1. Cook the pasta as indicated on the package (I put my pasta in quickly boiling, salted water for about 6-8 minutes), leaving it slightly al dente.

2. Meanwhile, take all the other ingredients except the olive oil and mix together in a bowl (only briefly), seasoning with salt and pepper as well.

3. Once the pasta is cooked, drain and put back into the cooking pot. Add the artichoke mixture to the hot pasta and over medium heat, toss the pasta and artichoke mixture to combine. Drizzle the pasta and artichokes with olive oil and continue to toss for about 30 seconds more, not allowing the pasta to overcook.

4. Serve with extra parmesan cheese grated on the top and one last squirt of lemon juice from the unused lemon half.

Follow Me on Pinterest


  1. Artichoke... nutrition bomb! Mom made me love it in childhood. Combined with pasta, oh... perfect! If only it wasn't an expensive ingredient where I live - I'd have included it more in my dining.

  2. I love artichokes and living in SF have the good fortune to be near Monterry County. When we drove through there last fall, you could stop at the local farmer stalls and try fried artichokes dipped in aioli. Awesome only starts to describe it.

    This recipe sounds wonderful and a sure sign of spring - cannot wait to try it.

    I love the concept of artichokes and ice cream. Have you tried to drink milk with artichokes? It tastes really sweet so you can only guess at how sweet the ice cream would taste.

    How about cardons? Have you tried them yet?

    BTW, Castorville is near Gilroy (26 miles) - garlic capital - match made in heaven!

    Great post, and you just decided for me what I'm making for dinner - thanks for removing the uncertainty!

  3. The photo of your pasta is so spring-y! The recipe is wonderful and one I will definitely try. I must admit to being one who has never prepped a real artichoke before - a lack in my culinary experience that needs to be addressed. As usual, I enjoyed your historic tidbits on the artful artichoke!

    One of these days, you should let us have a look at your kitchen 'bodega'!

  4. My parents have a home in Carmel which is about 15 minutes away from that giant artichoke, which actually sits in a strip mall in artichoke land. I think my dad has a goofy picture of each family standing in front of that thing.

    I think they are beautiful to look at one of my favorite things to eat too. Have you seen the giant globe artichokes with out the prickly leaves? Can't wait till the artichokes start appearing in London! (I put some canned artichokes (urg) in my dinner a few weeks ago).

    I didn't know you could eat them raw...

  5. Sounds simply delicious and just right for spring!