By Joe Dizney
According to Greek legend, Zeus was vacationing on the Aegean island of Kinaros when, emerging from a divine dip, he chanced upon a fetching mortal, Cynara, bathing by the shore.
The girl bravely met Zeus’ gaze, and, smitten, he seduced her and decided to make her a goddess. Cynara was relocated to a clandestine Mount Olympus hideaway (pied-a-ciel?) but soon grew homesick and snuck back to the world of mortals for a visit. The enraged Zeus transformed her into a thorny plant that we know as the artichoke, Cynara cardunculus.
Curious mortals eventually cracked the culinary code of this member of the thistle family and its flower was heralded as a “food of the gods.” The edible portions of the bud consist primarily of the fleshy lower portions of the tough, triangular leaves (or bracts) and the base (or heart).
The unseasoned boiled or steamed artichoke has a delicate bitter-sweetness. Its leaves are removed one at a time, and the fleshy base eaten (the fibrous upper part discarded) after being dipped in hollandaise, butter, aioli or other sauces before the heart is exposed.
The peak artichoke season is spring but they are harvested throughout the summer. And while Europe and South America are the main producers, California provides nearly 100 percent of the U.S. crop, with Castroville producing 80 percent of that total.
I mention this mainly as Castroville is mere spitting distance from Gilroy, the “garlic capital of the world,” an origin of the other featured ingredient in this week’s recipe.
Artichokes, quartered and stripped of their inedible parts, are reassembled with a head of “the stinking rose” at their core, anointed with oil (and butter if you like), sprinkled with thyme, wrapped in foil and roasted over coals until the artichoke is spoon-tender and the garlic cloves are the spreadable consistency of warm butter, ready to be squeezed out over a bit of crusty bread or slathered on a burger or steak. It’s an earthy feast fit for the gods and goddesses of Olympus.
Fire-Roasted Artichokes & Garlic
6 heads garlic
6 whole, fresh globe artichokes
Six 12-to-18-inch squares of heavy-duty aluminum foil
Extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup melted butter (optional)
6 to 12 springs fresh thyme
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
With a sharp knife, chop the top quarter of each bulb to expose most of the individual cloves. Remove the excess papery skin (without separating the bulb) and set aside.
Make an acidulated bath for the artichokes in a medium-sized bowl with the juice of the two lemons and 2 quarts of cool water. This will keep them from discoloring. You will need this to assemble the packets.
To prepare the artichokes, one at a time, with a sharp knife (a serrated knife will serve you well here) chop off most of the stem. Tear off the small, loose leaves closest to the stem. Cut off the top third of the globe. With scissors, clip off the hard, sharp tips on the remaining leaves so they will not puncture the foil packets.
Stand the globe on its head, quarter it and plunge it into the lemon-water bath. Take a quarter of the artichoke and with a paring knife remove the fuzzy “choke” and the fine, small leaves, enough to create a cavity that when reassembled will accommodate a bulb of trimmed garlic. Return the cleaned quarter to the bath and repeat the process with the remaining three.
Lay a square of foil on a flat surface. Quickly drain the artichoke quarters and lay them leaf-side down in quadrants in the middle of the foil square. Place a trimmed head of garlic in its center. Drizzle all lightly with olive oil (and butter, if using). Roughly tear a couple of stems of thyme and sprinkle over vegetables. Salt and pepper to taste. Carefully gather the packet from underneath, forming the artichoke back into a globe surrounding the garlic as best you can. Keep it tight without tearing; twist the corners and excess foil at top to close it into a compact, sealed package. Repeat the process with the other artichokes.
Lay a good charcoal fire and, when it is ready, place the packets toward the outer edge of the grill and cook for 45 minutes, turning them occasionally and moving them closer to the center as the fire begins to cool.
Serve the artichokes directly from the packets. Squeeze the individual cloves out over the artichokes, good bread or a hamburger or steak. Keep a big bowl on the table for foil and debris.