Thursday, March 25, 2004

Baby Artichokes Signal Spring

Baby artichokes mean spring to me. I first discovered them when I lived in Tuscany. There we ate the mini or baby ones raw, or made a frittata with them, the minute they came into season in March and April. I had grown up eating the large sized artichokes but the babies were a revelation to me. I loved the small version we ate in Italy so much I brought seeds home for my mother hoping she could grow them. It was years before the mini ones started to be sold commercially in the US. Fortunately now you can find them in markets all over the Bay Area. For more about baby artichokes and how to prepare and cook them, check out Ocean Mist

A bizarre looking food to anyone unfamiliar with it, artichokes are grown in California though they are native of the Mediterranean. The artichoke's spiny tips indicate it's in the thistle family. Artichokes are actually the edible bud of a flower; and are a good source of vitamin C, folate, and magnesium.

Unlike the larger versions, baby artichokes are very tender and delicious pan fried in olive oil and then steamed until just done. You can also slice them thin and make a salad out of them. Tonight we ate them dressed with lemon along with boiled fingerling potatoes. Fingerlings are a variety of potato that is also a newcomer to local markets. Because they are small, they cook up quickly. They have a sweet yellow flesh that really doesn't need any butter. A little salt maybe.

Our main dish was veal. Something else I ate frequently in Italy. Veal piccata is one of the easiest and fastest dishes you can make at home. And so elegant! Slices of veal are pounded thin and dusted with flour. You brown them in butter and olive oil, no more than two minutes on each side then add a squeeze of lemon, a sprinkling of capers and a splash of chicken broth and you're done. It's expensive but you only need a tiny amount per person, maybe a quarter of a pound or so.

Part of the reason spring is such a highly anticipated season is that it comes after winter. Spring's not nearly as nice as summer, but it is a welcome break from the dreariness of winter. Winter is alright in the beginning, but it gets old fast. The cold wet weather gets tiresome. The nights are long. The markets are filled with root vegetables and apples and pears. Not that there's anything wrong with root vegetables, apples and pears, but I long for something fresh and green and tender. And those first baby artichokes are like a promise of many good things to come.

Benvenuto primavera!