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Grilled artichokes get meal off to great start

| Wednesday, July 16, 2008

I am always slightly amused when I dine out and begin to see a trend on the restaurant menus. Artichokes are no longer just served warm, steamed or chilled with a simple vinaigrette. You can find many versions of grilled (or even fancier: "fire-roasted") artichokes with spicy basting sauces and creative sauces that complement the smoky artichoke flavor.

Some of the artichokes I have tasted at certain restaurants have not been cooked beforehand, so unfortunately, the final result is al dente, a texture not optimal for the vegetable. This recipe cooks the artichokes first and then finishes them off on the grill, so that the texture is just right.

You might be interested to know that America's entire commercial artichoke crop is grown on just more than 9,000 acres concentrated in only five California counties -- a meager harvest compared to Italy's 150,000 acres of artichokes. In recent years, even fewer American farmers have been growing artichokes because the demand has declined. Sadly, some artichoke enthusiasts think the decline is linked to Italian families not passing on their culinary traditions and instead opting for quicker cooking solutions. But Californians love artichokes, consuming nearly 40 percent of the domestic crop.

Make sure to select globe artichokes that have tight, compact heads and tiny thorns. Don't worry if they are a little brown, which sometimes comes from a light frost before harvesting.

Grilled artichokes, with their smoky-sweet flavor, taste decidedly different from steamed artichokes. I love to serve these at a casual dinner along with small bowls on the table for guests to discard the remaining leaves. If you prefer a lighter sauce, try a sprightly, light vinaigrette or make the aioli with low-fat mayonnaise. I also like to combine fresh tomato salsa with sour cream and lime juice for a Mexican-style sauce.

Although artichokes are thought to be unfriendly to wine, a dry chenin blanc or spicy sauvignon blanc goes nicely with this dish.


Grilled Artichoke Halveswith Red Pepper Aioli

• 3 large artichokes

• 3 slices of lemon

• 1/4 cup olive oil

• 2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

• 1 shallot, minced

For the garnish :

• Red Pepper Aioli ( recipe follows )

• 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley, for garnish

• Lemon slices, for garnish

Cut the sharp points off the artichoke leaves with kitchen shears. Remove the small dry outer leaves from around the base of the artichoke. Cut off the stem 1 inch from the bottom of each artichoke. Soak the artichokes in cold water for at least 15 minutes to clean them.

Place the artichokes upright in a saucepan with about 4 inches of water and add the lemon slices. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to medium, and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, partially covered, or until the leaves pull off fairly easily. (You want to make sure the artichokes will hold together when grilling.) Drain thoroughly.

Let the artichokes cool to room temperature and then cut them in half lengthwise. Using a serrated spoon, small tongs or a teaspoon, scoop out the fuzzy inner choke and discard.

While the artichokes are cooling, prepare a grill for medium-high-heat grilling. (At this point, the artichokes can be prepared one day ahead, covered, and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before grilling.)

Combine the oil, parsley and shallot in a small bowl. Using half of the oil mixture, brush the leaf side of each artichoke half. Arrange on the grill, leaf side down, and grill for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the artichokes have grill marks. Brush the cut sides of the artichoke halves with the remaining oil mixture and turn over. Grill the cut sides until they have grill marks, for 3 to 4 more minutes.

Transfer the artichokes to a platter. Dollop 2 to 3 tablespoons Red Pepper Aioli in the center of each half or serve on the side in a small ramekin. Sprinkle with the parsley and garnish with lemon slices just before serving.

Makes 6 servings.

Red Pepper Aioli

For milder flavor, add a tablespoon of roasted garlic instead of fresh garlic.

• 4 cloves garlic

• 1 roasted, peeled, seeded and finely chopped medium-size sweet red bell pepper (bottled are OK, but make sure to rinse them well)

• 1 cup mayonnaise

• Salt and white pepper, to taste

• Pinch of cayenne pepper

With the motor running, add the garlic cloves to a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process until pureed. Add the sweet red bell pepper and process until well blended. Add the mayonnaise and process. Add the salt, white pepper and cayenne, and taste for seasoning.

Refrigerate the sauce in a tightly covered container until serving time. The aioli can be prepared as many as five days ahead and refrigerated.

Makes 1 1/4 cups.

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