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A Year of Artichoke Hearts

“Top 10 Recipes” lists are a big thing at the new year, a way to look back and figure out which dishes made a hit and which ones were just so-so. But sometimes, after an entire year, the top-10 judging criteria can get a little distorted. How do dining section editors compare five quasi-Asian stir-fried noodle-and-greens dishes, most of them mysteriously pumped up with bacon crumbles (2009’s star ingredient), and decide all five really belong in the top 10 for the year?

In one of my early posts, I was thinking about toasted cheese sandwiches (grilled cheese, hard to believe, was a Top 100 Dishes entry for Bon Appétit at that point). At the end, I threw in a quick little recipe for marinated artichoke hearts done in a microwave as an antidote to all the middle-American boredom. Yesterday I ran across an artichoke and potato salad from the LA Times‘s 2009 top-10 list and realized my artichoke hearts would probably make it better. Because they make everything better, or almost.

Marinating your own artichoke hearts takes five minutes, is less expensive than buying a jar of prepared ones, tastes fresher, and has a short list of real ingredients. A ~12-oz batch lasts more than a week in the fridge, where it’s  ready to serve as a pick-me-up for sandwiches, pasta, fish, omelets, salads, and hot vegetable dishes. I use these artichoke hearts so often that whenever I get to my Trader Joe’s and they’ve run completely out of bags of plain frozen artichoke hearts in the freezer and won’t get any in for weeks, I feel horrible and deprived, like someone who’s just been told not to talk with her hands.

That puts it in MY top 10.

You don’t need more than a dash of salt in this recipe to make the artichoke hearts taste intense and bright. The fresh lemon juice and garlic do it for you, and something about the artichokes themselves makes the combination work. The garlic may turn blue-green if you use a microwave container for cooking. It’s not harmful, since the garlic is cooked with the dish rather than added raw afterward, which can pose a risk for botulism in non-acidic dishes kept for more than a few days. Cooking in pyrex and then storing in a microwaveable container seems to prevent this effect.

Frozen artichoke hearts and marinade ready for the microwave

Frozen artichoke hearts and marinade ready for the microwave

Microwave-Marinated Artichoke Hearts

  • 12-oz bag frozen plain artichoke heart quarters (Trader Joe’s, and I think supermarkets sell C&W brand)
  • juice of a good-sized lemon
  • 1 fat clove garlic, minced/mashed/grated
  • glug of olive oil (2-3 T)
  • dash salt (~1/4 t)
  • sprig of thyme, optional
  • spoonful or so of dry white wine, optional (I usually skip it)

Mix together ingredients and microwave in a covered pyrex bowl or microwave container on HIGH for about 4-5 minutes (5 for pyrex, 4 should be enough for the microwave container, but check) until steamed through and tender. Stir enough to coat all the artichoke hearts in the marinade and let cool. Keep in the fridge–they should last at least a week.

Some favorite uses:

  • addition to basic garden salads
  • addition to small salad of sliced tomatoes with Greek olives, shredded basil,  wine vinegar and olive oil
  • addition to toasted mozzarella, fried egg, or eggplant sandwiches
  • topping for pizza (squeeze out the marinade before adding so the pizza doesn’t get soggy)
  • topping, with some chopped kalamata olives and a few sprigs of rosemary, for baked mahi-mahi or other steaky fish (chicken breasts are probably good too)
  • addition to microwave marinara with basil leaves for ravioli or tortellini
  • omelet ingredient with feta cheese
  • addition to Greek-style spinach filling for stuffed fried fish, spanakopita, or omelets
  • topping for baked red bell peppers stuffed with polenta or corn kernels and cheese

Marinated artichoke hearts also star in a number of cooked vegetable salads. Here are two–one’s my own, a quick fry-up with cauliflower and red peppers. The other’s my revision of the LA Times top-10 artichoke and potato salad, with a bit of a nutrition and cooking sense kvetch (not to say rant) alongside. Just picture me waving my hands around while stomping through my tiny kitchen.

Artichoke and Cauliflower Fry-Up (okay, it needs a better name, but it tastes good) Serves 3-4 as a side dish

  • half a head of cauliflower, cut in bite-size pieces about half an inch thick
  • 10-12 marinated artichoke quarters, sliced in half lengthwise, don’t squeeze out the marinade
  • 1/2-1 red bell pepper, washed and cut up into bite-size pieces
  • 1/2-1 medium onion, your choice of color, chopped in bite-size pieces or smaller as you please
  • 1-2 sprigs thyme
  • dab (1/4 t. or so) of z’khug, optional
  • crumbled feta cheese to taste (1-2 oz)

Precook the cauliflower by microwaving covered with 1/4 inch of water in the container for 3-4 minutes until just tender, then drain. Fry the onion, red pepper, artichoke hearts and thyme and/or z’khug in a nonstick pan for a minute or so with a spoonful or two of olive oil. Add in the drained cooked cauliflower and shake or stir the pan for 5-10 minutes until the onions and pepper are cooked through and all the vegetables start to brown to your liking. Crumble feta cheese over and toss lightly, serve hot or room temp with a bit of cracked black pepper handy.

Variation: Instead of feta, add 1-2 oz. mozzarella shredded or chopped small, and stir it in to melt. Add a few spoonfuls of water or dry white wine and let it simmer a minute on medium-low.

Artichoke and Potato Salad with Harissa

Explanation and kvetch: I’ve adapted this one from an LA Times recipe originally published Sept. 16, 2009 for Rosh Hashanah and selected for the “Top 10 of 2009” this week. The original recipe came from Got Kosher? Provisions (which I think is an LA-based kosher caterer) and is supposed to feed 8 people. It calls for trimming and boiling fresh artichoke heart quarters from 4 artichokes (to me, fresh artichokes are for when you’re dipping leaves–the caterers seem to have thrown these away) with 2 diced potatoes, a tablespoon of harissa, a spoonful of paprika, juice of a lemon, 2 t. salt, 3 T olive oil and 4 cloves of garlic in a quart of water, then boiling down the full quart of brine to a “glaze” at the end.

They may be right about the portions at a banquet–caterers usually are–but I think if I were serving 8 people at home, I’d want to double the recipe or add more artichoke hearts than they called for, be more careful with the harissa, and cut out most of the salt–they called for 2 teaspoons, or 1/4 t. per person–fully a quarter of the max RDA for young people, in a single side dish at one meal. As for the cooking method? No way. Boiling in brine, then boiling the brine down? Feh.

So I make a full recipe of marinated artichoke hearts as above–a lot more artichoke for the money (2 little pieces per person would feel like a rip-off to me; your mileage may vary) and a lot less work and time. And salt. I cook the potatoes plain, mix the two, and make a light vinaigrette-style dressing (not a boiled-down brine) to pour over everything and let it meld a while before serving. I also like larger bite-size pieces of potato for a rustic dish like this, not foofy 1/2″ dice that look like they came out of a can and don’t match the scale of the artichoke hearts. And I like homemade z’khug better than harissa from a tube–the cilantro brightens the flavor and makes it more satisfying to me, plus I finally made a new batch instead of letting yet another bunch of cilantro go bad in my fridge (the shame, the shame).

I could easily leave out the paprika as well and sprinkle on a bit of purple sumac powder, with its sour bite. But that’s up to you. If you don’t like hot stuff at all, skip the harissa or z’khug and sub in a mixture of Italian herbs and a few spoonfuls of dry white wine in the dressing while the vegetables are still hot–kind of like the potatoes for salade niçoise.

Finally, besides the time and the cut in salt, there’s another benefit of doing it my way. By not boiling everything together in the same brine you keep the contrast of flavors between the bright acidic artichoke hearts and the potatoes, which will pick up a bit of lemon and garlic, but not so much that they lose their identity in the mix.

OK, the actual revised recipe:

  • 1 recipe marinated artichoke hearts as above
  • 4-5 red potatoes in bite-size pieces
  • harissa or z’khug (my preference), to taste OR a mixture of Italian herbs (thyme, marjoram, fennel seed, oregano) and some cracked black pepper
  • a lemon and a few spoonfuls of extra virgin olive oil for dressing
  • sumac powder or paprika or both, sprinkled on at the end, optional

Make the artichoke hearts as above. Meanwhile scrub and cut potatoes into bite-size pieces and simmer in just enough plain water to cover in a nonstick pan with a lid, stirring once in a while, until tender. Or nuke them as well in a lidded container with plain water just to cover for 5-7 minutes, stopping once or twice to stir and check for doneness during the cooking time. Then mix the hot marinated artichokes with the hot cooked potatoes, make a quick dressing with lemon juice, olive oil, maybe a little water or white wine, and harissa or z’khug (go easy) or Italian herbs to taste, toss and let it sit a while to develop the flavors. Sprinkle on paprika and/or sumac at will. This will probably be better the next day.

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