Russ Parsons is what you might call a food writer’s food writer. He’s been a food and wine journalist for the Los Angeles Times for more than two decades, has garnered an armload of awards and has written How to Pick a Peach: The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table. Parsons shares the ABCs of artichokes -- from how to “squeak” them to test for freshness to how to harness the compound that makes them taste so sweet.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: Is it true that artichokes only come from one town in California?
Russ Parsons: There is one town in California named Castroville. It’s a little, little burg just north of Monterey, right on the Pacific Ocean. From within 10 miles of that town come something like 85 percent of all the artichokes that are grown in the U.S. It’s a relic of an old kind of agriculture from when people didn’t really eat artichokes that much.
LRK: When are they in season?
RP: Artichokes have two prime seasons, and there’s a slump in the middle where they slow down. It’s early in the spring and then late in the summer, like late summer-early fall. In between, they’re available, but they don’t bear as heavily, so there aren’t quite as many of them and they’re likely to be more expensive.
LRK: When you’re buying artichokes what should you look for?
RP: The first thing that you look for with an artichoke isn’t something that you actually look for. Pick it up, hold it next to your ear and give it a good squeeze. If you hear a squeak, that’s a good sign. What happens with artichokes is the leaves lose their crispness. When they’re squeaking like that and they offer some resistance, that’s a really good sign. Don’t worry about black spots on the outside or on the cut end of the stem. Artichokes have an enzyme in them that starts to blacken immediately when it’s in contact with the air.
When you’re peeling artichokes and you’re cutting them up, you want to minimize their contact with the air as much as possible because it will show up in the dish. When you’ve cut up an artichoke, put it in water into which you’ve squeezed a lemon. The water will keep the oxygen away; the acidity from the lemon will delay the bad enzymatic reaction.
LRK: How long will an artichoke keep? How should you store it?
RP: They’ll keep probably a week in the refrigerator. You want to keep them in a bag but you don’t want to wash them first. There’s a tendency sometimes to wash them first, but if there’s any moisture on the surface, that will start to break down the peel and it’ll let in infection.
LRK: You say something in the book that’s interesting: If you cook them for a brief amount of time, they have one flavor, and if you cook them for a long time, they have another flavor.
RP: Artichokes contain a compound called cynarin and it has this weird capacity of turning everything you taste afterward sweet. But it’s also heat-volatile, so if you cook artichokes very briefly, you get that artichoke reaction where you drink a glass of water and the water tastes sweet. In those cases, I think it’s great to pair it with as many big flavors as you can. Pair them with black olives and lots of garlic and lemon; really build it up.
If you cook it for longer at a low heat, what happens is it simmers and that cynarin starts to vaporize and go away. What’s left behind is sweet, but not that kind of metallic sweetness. It’s a much more subtle flavor that you need to pair with more subdued flavors: prosciutto, cream and things like that.
LRK: Do you ever eat them raw?
RP: They’re great raw. What you need to do is peel it down to the heart and then shave it very, very thinly on a mandoline or one of those little Japanese mandolines. Then toss them with some lemon juice and olive oil, and shave some Parmigiano-Reggiano over it. That’s a really great salad.