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SOCAL STYLE / Entertaining

A Preference for Small Fry

Baby Artichokes and Aioli Make Great Chips and Dip

April 26, 1998|NANCY SPILLER | Nancy Spiller's last article for the magazine was about chocolate

Not to brag, but I've always known a thing or two about artichokes. As a kid growing up in Castro Valley, I constantly corrected people who mistook my Bay Area suburb for nearby Castroville, the Artichoke Capital of the World. But sometimes even I got confused. Artichoke plants were always part of our garden border, fountain sprays of silver-green foliage with the wingspan of an endangered bird. Lousy with artichokes, we could ignore the home-grown buds rising from the folds of notched leaves in the spring until they turned into the outrageous sapphire-blue thistle heads of summer. Vacations to Santa Cruz always included a stop at the Giant Artichoke stand in Castroville for a bag of the biggest, greenest ones we could find.

Thus I was shocked on my first travels beyond our state border to discover that artichokes are considered exotic in the rest of the country. "How do you eat them?" I've been asked by otherwise sophisticated people. It's not their fault. Rarely do you see TV characters put aside their cigarettes or set down their drinks to eat an artichoke.

Having been to the artichoke born, I've felt confident telling them to eat the steamed immature flower buds one leaf at a time. It's a slow, contemplative dance of tug, dip in lemon mayonnaise and scrape the starched base across your teeth. The goal is the tender heart, a flat, solid reward slathered with more sauce and nibbled away until the stem's bitter region is reached.

My own artichoke education has continued into adulthood. In France and Italy, artichauts and carciofi are as commonplace as they are in Northern California. Varieties other than our "globe," such as the violet-colored poivrade of Provence, are grown. These can be cooked and eaten whole or, as the Italians deliciously dare, served raw and shaved razor thin on greens with big flakes of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and dressed with oil and lemon juice.

In Monterey County, where 80% of America's artichoke crop is grown, I've found that the best artichokes are not the size of a softball, but the tender babies, like large Brussels sprouts, 16 to 19 of them to a pound. Two bites and they're gone. Unfortunately, fresh petite chokes can sometimes be hard to find, even around Monterey. While buying a bag at a Watsonville produce stand, the counter woman confided to me that processors usually hijack the crop before they get to market, marinating them for those midget-sized jars.

I was shocked again. Until I learned that better supermarkets can order baby artichokes by the box. Occasionally, you can find them at farmers' markets, particularly during the height of their season (which this year could taper off this month because of El Nino). While chef at Pasadena's Twin Palms, restaurant consultant Michael Roberts fried the little ones with caper berries and served them with a garlic aioli dip. Though too crunchy for much contemplation, they are completely addictive.

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Crispy Artichokes and Caper Berries with Aioli

Serves 4

*

12 baby artichokes

1/2 cup olive oil

1/2 cup peanut oil

12 caper berries (available in gourmet markets)

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

freshly ground black pepper

3 tablespoons shaved Romano

cheese

aioli (see below) *

Prepare artichokes by discarding outer leaves until light green ones are exposed. Trim top 1/4 inch from tips and any dark bits from stems. Quarter artichokes lengthwise. Heat oil in small skillet over medium high heat. Add artichokes and cook uncovered 8 to 12 minutes. Turn artichokes until they are dark gold in color. Drain on paper towel. Add caper berries and fry 2 minutes. Drain caper berries on paper towel. Place artichokes and caper berries in bowl. Sprinkle with sea salt, black pepper and Romano cheese. Serve with aioli on side.

Aoli

2 egg yolks

1/4 teaspoon salt

6 garlic cloves, finely minced

1 tablespoon fresh

lemon juice

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil Place yolks, salt, garlic and lemon juice in mixing bowl and, using flexible wire whisk, add olive oil in slow, steady stream until incorporated and mixture has consistency of mayonnaise.

*

Food stylist: Norman Stewart; dishes from Maison et Cafe, Los Angeles

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