One of the things I loved about living in San Jose was that the ocean was a short twenty minute drive over the Santa Cruz Mountains. Once over the mountains you felt a world away from tech capital of the world, as the hot stale air of the valley gave way to a cool ocean breeze. Heading north or south on Highway 1 from Santa Cruz brought with it endless miles of beautiful coastline lined with seaside farms.
Nearly 100% of artichokes found in the US come from this area and the prickly shrub , a member of the thistle family, can be seen all the way down to Monterey. Whenever I headed down that way, I'd always stop by a road-side stand and pick up a giant bag of artichokes for a few bucks. Back then, I thought of artichokes as a second-rate vegetable that was cheap and fun to eat. Imagine my surprise when I moved out to New York and saw artichokes selling for several bucks a piece!
Since there's not much to eat on an artichoke, I could never bring myself to shell out the cash for them here in New York, so it's been over 5 years since I've had one. That dry-spell came to an end when I found twelve-packs of baby artichokes at WholeFoods for $2! Delighted, I picked up a couple packs of the gorgeous green buds.
With New York defrosting, spring is almost in the air; as I stared into my uncharacteristically barren fridge, I decided it was time for something vegetarian. This is my take on the Southern classic "shrimp and grits", sans the crustaceans. It's not that artichokes in any way resemble shrimp, but something about garlicky artichokes on a bed of creamy grits just sounded right.
The tender sauteed baby artichokes are studded with bits of browned garlic and are buttery and lightly caramelized around the edges. A splash of lemon added at the end gives them just enough tang to contrast the creamy bed of grits that they rest on. The grits aren't merely a side in this dish though, so I loaded them up with cheese to give them a healthy dose of umami. There's no bacon or shrimp to be found in this dish, but with the amount of flavor it packs, the meat won't be missed.
For the sauteed artichokes
For the grits
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Prepare the baby artichokes by removing all the tough outer leaves. You want to get down to the leaves that are mostly yellowish-green. Trim the stem and any dark green bits from the base of the artichoke, trim the top 1/3 of the artichoke leaves off and discard, then quarter the artichoke lengthwise. Put the artichokes in cold water with a splash of lemon juice to keep them from turning brown. When the water comes to a boil, add the artichokes and boil for 2 minutes. Drain them and put them on paper towels while you prepare the grits.
- Bring the water and milk to a boil in a medium saucepan. Sprinkle the grits on the boiling liquid and turn down the heat to medium low. Stir regularly with a silicon spatula to keep the grits from burning to the bottom of the pan. When they are cooked, the mixture should get very thick. You can test a bite to check; the bits of corn should still be firm, but not crunchy. Add the cheese and half and half and stir together. Taste it, then add salt to taste (I added about 1 teaspoon of kosher salt, but it depends on how salty your cheese is).
- Meanwhile, add the butter and olive oil to a saute pan over medium high heat, then add garlic and fry until fragrant but not browned. Add the artichokes then toss to coat with oil. Fry until the garlic is golden brown and the artichokes have browned a little around the edges, then salt and pepper to taste. Remove the pan from the heat and drizzle with lemon juice, tossing to coat evenly.
- Plate by spreading a layer of grits down, then top with the garlic artichokes. Dust some pimentón on top, then sprinkle with lemon zest and chives.