We’re in the midst of prime artichoke time, running mid-March through mid-May, give or take. The artichoke, a thistle family member and grandchild of cardoon, is a perennial with a four-year life span. The artichoke proper is actually an unopened flower bud. Though the interior fuzzy “preflower” lining the heart of the artichoke is referred to as the “choke” (try eating it), in produce parlance the whole bud is “the ’choke”. If left to blossom, a large, striking deep blue bloom unfolds. Plants send up several large sprouts, upon which one large main ‘choke forms, with offshooting stems producing various smaller buds- hence the sizes small loose, 48’s 36’es, 24’s and 18’s.
The green globe variety is what we primarily see, which thrives in cool coastal climes from Pescadero through Watsonville. Globe ‘chokes feature a meaty, heavy heart and high yielding bracts (outer petals of the actual ‘choke). Desert varieties are becoming more prevalent, bred to withstand warmer weather to extend season. While less “meaty”, they’re decent eating.
Ancient Romans cultivated artichokes to eat fresh, and to brine. Catherine de Medici brought them from her native Florence to France as she became Queen, beginning a love affair between the French and the ‘choke. French colonists brought the ‘choke stateside to Louisiana. After two thousand years of cultivation in Italy, Italian immigrants who settled in the Half Moon Bay area a hundred years ago completed the last leg of the artichokes journey to our door.
Organic artichokes are challenging to grow (critters and bugs love them), but increased demand has encouraged some local growers to dial in the cultivation, and topping this list is T&D Willey Farms.
Shave thin, raw, for pairing with Parmesan Reggiano, drizzled with truffle oil- maybe with fennel in the mix. Poach in olive oil for an amazing antipasto. Steam, braise, grill, frito misto, or sauté with other nubile spring veggies- carrots, onions, asparagus! Sauté trimmed wedges with your favorite potato. Gratin with Parmesan, cream and herb of choice. Stuff whole with any combo of bread crumbs, sausage, herbs, garlic, onion, mushrooms. From ragu to risotto, with our without peas and spring onions, these things shout spring. Pair with grapefruit for a refreshing salad twist, or with pasta, olives, capers, garlic, a rich olive oil and Asiago. Or try a truffade with potatoes, bacon and Gruyere. The incredible, edible Artichoke is in full spring form.
Weekly interview with local farmers, chefs and cheese mongers
Featured Farmer: Denesse Willey
Featured Farm: T & D Willey Farms
Working with GreenLeaf since: 1984
Specialties: artichokes, Bloomsdale spinach, baby turnips, radishes
Earliest Food Memory?
I guess it would be helping my mom bake a cake- chocolate, obviously, in Fresno, CA. I was a town girl. Another is takeout food, which in our household was a rarity. Once in a while when my parents did not feel like cooking we would get to go to the local take out joint for hamburgers and French fries. Even though we could not buy soda, we kids thought that was quite a treat, and we’d split a Pepsi at home. .
My grandparents were sharecroppers and my Mother’s Uncle was in farming in Illinois. I had a romantic notion, a fantasy of family farming as it was in the Midwest. I had a degree in nursing, was working as a nurse, but for many reasons it was not a good fit. Tom was learning to farm, having been a foreman on a family farm. It took a few years to get to the point where we could afford for me to join him in the venture. But it’s been onward and upward since then.
Favorite artichokes recipe?
The one which is so much work. I pare baby artichokes until they look like flower buds, fan them out in a big skillet with some olive oil, rosemary, lemons and water, then tent with foil to steam/braise, then let them brown a bit once liquid has cooked off. I turn them over, brush with balsamic vinegar, and dust with Parmesan. The perfect finger food- people can’t stop talking about them. It’s a lot of work, but a lot of reward, not unlike farming.
Oooh. Climate change. Many curve balls, less predictability. We’re wondering what the new normal is, and how to change our crops to accommodate.
Looking in to the future?
Successful economic succession for our farm. None of our kids are really interested, which is fine. This was our passion. I want them to follow their passion. What turns me on is people who are passionate about what they do.
Farm to Table
Featured Chef: Executive Chef Matt Greco
Featured Restaurant: Wente Restaurant and Winery
Working with GreenLeaf since: 1985
Earliest food memories?
Ooh. Tug of war. Mom made sour cream coffee cake to sell for Christmas present money every winter in the kitchen of our apartment in Houston, TX. I remember this from when I was 4 years old. It’s been on my menu every year since then, and the recipe has been shared with my chefs over the years. Also, my Grandmom grew a lot of their own vegetables and I remember as a kid, sitting with her on her front porch, snapping green beans and shelling limas into 5-gallon buckets. Also eating pork chop with my Dad on camping trips.
How are you currently using Willey Farms organic artichokes?
It’s one I can’t take off the menu because our diners love it. We clean, quarter and fry the artichokes to order, mix with slivers of grilled sunchokes, toss with Capriago cheese and pine nuts, and tie it together with a mustard/truffle vinaigrette.
Favorite spring vegetables?
Pea tendrils. What’s great about them is that they have a distinct, good spring flavor and you don’t have to do a lot to them, just a slight wilt, and they pair well with so many proteins.
Having time to change menu as much as I would like. In the grand scheme of things it would be often, but time is a challenge and I want new dishes to be well thought out, for the plates have to have a purpose. When everything’s running smoothly and everyone’s here, then there’s time.
Looking into the future?
I’m excited and nervous about working with our gardener, planning now how much of what to grow in our one-acre garden plot. I’m wondering how far we can go to support ourselves, how far will that take us?