Pasta with Baby Artichokes, Mint Breadcrumbs and Chili Flakes

It’s springtime on Long Island and, although I’ve only been back in New York for a week, my winter getaway in Florida seems like a distant memory.  I’m enjoying the Spring weather and the early profusion of flowering bulbs and trees.  It’s still a bit early for local asparagus or artichokes, but my produce market has an abundance of both of them (from California), and I couldn’t resist the baby artichokes.

Artichokes can be truly challenging to find and prepare (properly).  I’m not a fan of serving artichokes whole on a plate, because I feel they’re a  lot of show and no substance.  I don’t really enjoy picking off leaf after leaf and sucking on the tiny bottom portion, then discarding the rest of the leaf.

Similarly, stuffed artichokes look beautiful on the plate, but what you end up with is a pile of tough, inedible leaves and some leaden bread crumbs and cheese, that might as well have been eaten without ever having touched an artichoke.

This dish is a brilliant combination of pasta and stuffed artichokes.  Pasta with artichokes is a great combination, provided you clean and cook artichokes properly.

The big question is whether to use large globe artichokes or baby ones.  The globe artichokes at my market were very black around the edges, with loose-feeling leaves, noticeably dried out around the edges.  When you hold a globe artichoke, it should feel heavy and tight.  If you squeeze it,  it should feel solid and compact.  If it feels hollow, it’s probably old and dessicated.

Today, the baby artichokes looked better than the large ones.  Baby artichokes are only marginally less work to prepare than large ones, and, contrary to what most recipes say about baby artichokes, they produce almost as much waste as large ones.  Most recipes say that virtually the entire baby artichoke is edible–no choke and not much to peel.  If you follow these instructions, I promise, you’ll still have piles of inedible leaves on your plate.  Furthermore, depending on how large your “baby” artichokes are, you might find some chokes in them as well.

The most important thing to realize about artichokes–whether they’re the baby variety or the large globe variety–is that they are generally about 80 percent waste.  You MUST, as Marcella Hazan once said, clean them “without mercy.”

As you clean each one, it must immediately be cut in half and dropped into acidulated water, face-down (otherwise the cut halves will sit above the surface of the water and blacken) until you’re ready to cook them all.  The reason to cut them in half is to check for chokes–if there’s a fuzzy choke in any of them, it must be cut out with a paring knife.

Next, I boil the artichokes prior to sauteing.  This gives you the added benefit of being able to clean and prepare the artichokes entirely in advance (even a day or two), without worry of them blackening.  Once the artichokes are cleaned and boiled, you’ll have the makings of a quick and impressive dish which can be prepared in the time it takes for the pasta to boil.

Because this dish is reminiscent of a stuffed artichoke, seasoned breadcrumbs are necessary for its topping.  I love to use mint, parsley and pecorino to dress artichokes, so I’ve infused my crumbs (in this case, Progresso Seasoned Panko crumbs) with lots of chopped mint and parsley as I toasted them in a skillet.  The pecorino simply gets sprinkled on the finished dish.

Tonight, as a main course for our meal, I made a frittata of broccoli di rapa and a salad of local (probably hothouse-grown) baby oak leaf lettuce, dressed with lemon and olive oil.

Pasta with Baby Artichokes, Mint Breadcrumbs and Chili Flakes

serves 4

1 lb dried spaghetti or linguini

4 lbs baby artichokes

4 cloves garlic, split

1 large shallot

6 tbls olive oil

1 tsp chili flakes

3/4 c white wine

12 mint leaves

1/4 c chopped fresh parsley

salt and pepper to taste (be generous with the pepper)

1 c mint breadcrumbs (see below)

grated pecorino for sprinkling

To clean the artichokes, slice off the top 1/2″ crosswise and the stem and discard.  Peel off enough of the outer leaves until the remaining leaves are very pale green (almost white) and tender to the touch.

Slice in half lengthwise to make sure there’s no choke in the center.

Place each half cut-side down, in a large bowl of water containing the juice of a lemon.

Drop the cleaned artichokes into boiling salted water and blanch until tender–about 10 minutes.  Drain and set aside (or refrigerate for up to two days).

While the pasta boils, in a large skillet, place the shallots, garlic and artichokes on high heat with all but 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

Saute until all begins to turn golden (about 3 minutes, depending on the strength of your burner).  Add in the wine and reduce for another 2 or 3 minutes.  Add 2 more tablespoons of oil and chili flakes and reduce heat to low, stirring and shaking until pasta is cooked.  Just before pasta is cooked, add in mint leaves and parsley.

Add pasta to the skillet, along with about a half-cup of the pasta cooking water.

Serve topped with plenty of crumbs and grated pecorino.

Mint Breadcrumbs

1 c Progresso seasoned Panko crumbs

1/4 c chopped mint leaves

2 tbls chopped parsley

1/2 tsp black pepper

2 tbls olive oil

Place all ingredients in a small, nonstick skillet and toast on medium heat, stirring and turning often, for about 5 minutes (do not scorch!).

Remove from hot skillet and set aside.

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