It turns out that baby artichokes aren’t really babies but fully-grown small varieties instead. I hope I’m not the last person to make this realization. I still love them but I’m a real sucker for baby vegetables. They seem so perfect in their smallness. For many years now I’ve had a fantasy of planting a little garden of only diminutive vegetables, right down to the tiny ears of corn you find in Chinese cuisine. (In a recent NY Times article entitled, What to Plant as Summer Fades, they suggest that “seeds sowed now can be harvested for baby corn. Just as the silks appear, if you pick the tiny little cob off, what you have inside is that little ear of corn.”) I have to admit I had pictured tiny corn stalks in my imaginary garden.
But back to the baby artichokes I came home from the farmers market with last weekend. In the past I haven’t had much success cooking them but now I know the truth — baby artichokes are all about the heart. The outside leaves are tough and have very little “meat” on them. You have to remove them and go straight for the tender core. I know it’s hard to ruthlessly pull off all the outer leaves, cut the top inch or so off along with most of the stem. It may seem like a waste but you can either add to your compost or use them to make a light broth for summer soups or risotto.
The best way to tell when you have reached the heart is by color. Keep pulling until you see the tender inner leaves become a light greenish yellow color. The choke or the hairy white part in the center can be easily scooped out with a small spoon. Once you’ve trimmed the baby down to it’s heart, put it into a bowl of acidulated water (cool water with juice of 1/2 lemon added) until you’re ready to cook. From here you can use any number of methods to cook the hearts — steaming, roasting and braising are among the most common. Several of the Italian recipes I looked at sliced the heart in very thin pieces and served it raw on a salad. I tried a little without cooking it but wasn’t a fan. It may be that some varieties are tender enough to enjoy that way.
Keeping with an Italian theme, I pulled out my favorite local grain — farro — very common in Italian cooking. Farro as a salad is one of those dishes that until you try it, you can’t imagine how delicious it is. Cooking it al dente is much easier and quicker than risotto, which I love, but I’ve gotten used to assembling a nightly salad. It’s going to be one of the more difficult habits to break once summer becomes fall and salads leave the center stage to become side dishes again.
Farro Salad with Baby Artichoke Hearts and Tomatoes (2 servings)
4 baby artichokes
1 cup farro (available locally through Bluebird Grain Farms)
1 large tomato, chopped
1 handful sungold or other cherry tomatoes, cut in half
Goat’s milk or other local cheese
Several sprigs of basil, chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Red wine vinegar
Salt & pepper
Trim artichokes by removing all the tough outer leaves until you reach tender leaves of a light greenish yellow color. Cut off an inch or so from the top and most of the tough stem. Trim the base to remove any leaf ends. Cut in half, quarters or leave whole depending on size. Put in a bowl of cool water with lemon juice until you’re ready to cook.
Fill a saucepan with enough water to cover artichokes. Bring to a boil. Add artichokes and cook for 8-10 minutes until they’re soft. Drain off water and set artichokes on towel to dry.
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Toss artichokes in olive oil. Put on a baking sheet and season with salt & pepper to taste. Roast until lightly browned — about 10-12 minutes.
Place plenty of water in medium saucepan. Salt and bring to a boil. Add farro and let it boil 18-20 minutes, until it’s al dente. Drain and place on a plate to cool.
Once farro has cooled, assemble your salad with tomatoes, artichoke hearts, chopped basil and cheese.
Dress with olive oil and red wine vinegar, salt & pepper to taste.
Other excellent additions are thinly sliced onions, chopped cucumbers, parsley — just about any seasonal vegetable.
As Lily would say, ” Okey dokey artichokey.”