Along with the forsythia tumbling over the transverse walls in Central Park, artichokes are my signal that spring is here. The park offers that longed-for burst of energy from the vernal equinox and the Zingone Brothers bring me crates of baby artichokes that satisfy my hunger for culinary renewal. In their old-fashioned neighborhood Italian-family-owned grocery, the Zingone family has continuously fed me for almost 50 years – from my early svelte young model years through well-rounded grandmotherhood. Zingone Brothers – now widowed Mrs. Zingone and her children Dom and Mary, Uncle Nick and his sons, Richie and Nicky and Uncle Angelo – has been my culinary bedrock.
The younger generation has gone from calling me “mom” from my days owning a bakery of the same name to easy familiarity with “hey, Jude” and I’ve watched them grow up and have families of their own. Uncle Nick and Uncle Angelo always show courtly respect but love to show me how their wives cook whatever seasonal vegetable is on the stand in front of the store. This past week Uncle Angelo waxed poetically about his crates of baby artichokes. (Fortunately, Steve was there to photograph and so you see his time-worn hands pulling the leaves apart while he gives me cooking lessons.) I didn’t tell him that my mom used to buy gunny sacks of artichokes for one slim dollar from roadside stands in California nor that I had an intimate relationship with them in my own kitchen. We listened and, above all, felt Uncle Angelo’s deep love of the land and his visceral connection to the land of his birth.
I am perfectly satisfied dipping pulled-off leaves of steamed large artichokes into a quick mix of evo and aged balsamic and scraping off the bit of flesh each leaf yields to make a comforting meal. But, there are so many other things to do with them, particularly when they are tiny ones. Here is what I did with Uncle Angelo’s lesson. The recipe couldn’t be simpler – the result can be served as an appetizer, side dish, or hors’ d.
Braised Baby Artichokes
A couple of pounds of fresh baby artichokes
2 shallots, peeled and minced
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
Zest and juice of 1 orange, preferably organic
½ cup dry white wine
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Wash and drain the artichokes.
Fill a large bowl with cold water. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice into the water. Then, add the squeezed halves.
Working with one at a time, trim the top prickly tips from each artichoke (This is best done by laying the artichoke on its side and making one swift cut with a chef’ knife.) If the artichokes have stems, using a vegetable peeler, peel off the tough outer skin and cut bottom. Pull off any damaged outer leaves and then cut each artichoke in half, lengthwise. Immediately place the cut artichoke into the lemon water to keep it from discoloring. Continue trimming until all of the artichokes are done.
Cover the bottom of a large sauté pan with a nice layer of good olive oil. Place over medium heat. Add the shallots and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, for about 2 minutes or just until the aromatics have softened. Add the artichokes, cut side down. Add the orange zest and juice and white wine and season with salt and pepper to taste. Cover and bring to a simmer. Lower the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes or until the artichokes are tender.
Remove from the heat and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Taste and, if necessary, season with additional salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature. Or, cool and store, covered and refrigerated for up to 1 week.