Vail Valley seasonal: April is for artichokes
AVON, Colorado The artichokes of April are the epitome of spring. Local grocery stores have plentiful displays of fresh, perfect green artichokes at the best prices of the season. With their subtle, fresh flavor they are delicious on their own or as an enhancement to pastas, pizzas, seafood or salads.Native to the Mediterranean countries of Italy, Greece, and areas of northern Africa, the artichoke is the immature bud of the thistle plant, harvested before it blooms into a large purple flower. Today the majority of artichoke plants are grown in California near Monterrey Bay, where the climate is similar. The harvest begins in late March making artichokes one of the first of the spring veggies.Dont be intimidated by its appearance. An artichoke can be thorny, speckled with brown, and as heavy as a softball. But aficionados agree, the ritual of eating an artichoke leaf by leaf is rewarded with the discovery of its heart. The simplest way to enjoy a fresh artichoke is to steam it. Trim a half inch off the stem and place upright in a saucepot wide enough to hold all your artichokes standing upright. Place about an inch of cold water in the pan and give the water a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Bring the water to a boil, reduce heat to medium and simmer for about 45 minutes. The artichokes are ready when you can pierce the bottom with a sharp knife and they feel soft and supple.Now remember to enjoy the journey. Peel off one leaf at a time and dip the base into a light sauce lemon butter or aioli are perfect as they will not mask the flavor of the main event. The meat on the base of the leaf should be scraped off between clenched teeth, then the tough top part of the leaf discarded. Great to share and primitive in method, the artichoke is a social snack as you work your way through leaf after leaf. As you get to the center, the leaves become more tender, and almost entirely edible. Thats when you know you are close to the choke, the hairy, fuzzy center. Scrape that out and discard, and now youve reached the treasure: the heart of the artichoke. Cut it into small pieces, dunk lightly in your sauce and enjoy its sublime flavor and soft buttery texture.Jeremy Kittelson, executive chef at Restaurant Avondale, said artichokes herald the beginning of spring.They are delicious paired with other spring vegetables like peas, asparagus and fiddleheads and their subtle taste is a perfect compliment with the mild flavors of shellfish, he said.Kittelson shares his technique for creating a versatile artichoke sauce here. Enjoy with the shellfish that follows or use it to elevate a simple pasta or vegetable side dish.Shellfish with spring vegetables and classic artichoke sauceFor the sauce:16 baby artichokes8 large cloves garlic3 pieces smoked bacon, chopped2 lemons1 leek, sliced2 carrots, peeled and sliced1 stalk celery, chopped3 sprigs fresh thyme1 bay leafsalt and pepper3/4 cup dry white wine1/3 cup olive oilPeel the tough outer leaves from the artichokes, trim the stems and discard trimmings. Place the trimmed artichokes in a bowl of cold water with the juice of one lemon. Blanch the bacon for 1 minute in boiling water. Heat the olive oil in a deep saucepot. Remove the artichokes from the water and dry off. Saut in the olive oil over high heat for 3 minutes. Add the bacon and carrots and cook for 2 minutes. Add the leeks, celery, garlic and cook another 2 minutes. Stir in the thyme and bay leaf, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the white wine and enough water to cover the artichokes. Simmer covered for 30 to 40 minutes or until fork tender. Remove from heat. Let the artichokes cool in the liquid and then refrigerate the pot overnight.The next day, remove the artichokes from the liquid. Reheat the remaining liquid and vegetables and reduce by half. Quarter the artichokes, and return a few to the liquid. Allow to cool and pure to thicken. Season with a splash of lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper.Use this sauce for the shellfish entre below. Any additional sauce may be refrigerated and tossed with cooked pasta and veggies for an easy meal.For the entre: 1 cup cooked chickpeas1/2 cup each: peas, fiddleheads, asparagus (or other fresh green spring veggies)reserved artichokes1/2 pound scallops1/2 pound mussels or clams1/2 pound calamariFresh lemon juiceSalt and pepperChopped parsleyAdd the chickpeas to the artichoke puree and heat through. Saut the artichokes and other green veggies in olive oil till crisp tender. Saut the scallops in another pan for 2 minutes, add the clams and cook another 2 minutes, add the calamari and cook one more minute.Place the artichoke puree in the bottom of four shallow bowls. Toss the veggies with the shellfish and arrange on top of the sauce. Sprinkle with fresh lemon juice, chopped parsley, salt and pepper to taste. Serve at once.Serves 4.Sue Barham is the marketing director for Restaurant Avondale and Larkspur Restaurant. Avondale recently opened in The Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa in Avon. The restaurant features a West Coast inspired, seasonal menu and the chefs use time-honored cooking methods, such as slow roasting and braising, to create simple dishes rich in flavor. The wine program focuses on small production wines to compliment the straightforward cuisine. For more information visit http://www.avondalerestaurant.com.