I’m not sure about you guys, but when I was very little, I used to base many of my opinions about certain things on what my parents thought of those things. My dad thought something on TV was funny? Well, that meant it had to be worth watching, as he’s the funniest person I know. Mom didn’t like something? Clearly this meant it wasn’t good enough for me to like, either. It’s just one of those things that one does when one is small, and as an only child, I thought everything my parents said or did was awesome, and absolute law.
A lot of that changed as I grew older, of course. Mom still hates the color purple, yet it’s one of my five favorite colors; I still hate peanut butter for the most part, but will make exceptions if there is chocolate involved, etc., etc. But the artichoke thing… the artichoke thing stuck with me for most of my adult life. It started as one of those Mom-doesn’t-like-it things, and after a couple pizzas with horrible marinated artichoke hearts on top, I wrote them off as well.
Then there came a time when I’d just started to date this guy – we’ll call him Fred. To impress me, Fred decided to cook an elaborate meal for me one night (smart guy). It was a lovely setting with wine, candles – the whole nine yards; but I was crestfallen when I saw that our first course included artichokes. Still, he’d tried so hard and cooked all day, and the artichoke looked so pretty that I couldn’t possibly say I wouldn’t eat it. That’s just rude & impolite. So I tore off one of the tender leaves, dunked it in his (rather good) hollandaise, and gave it another shot.
And I’m glad I did, because that finally changed my mind about artichokes. They’re actually not half bad.
I’ll admit it’s still not my first go-to vegetable, as it’s cumbersome and tends to be on the expensive side. But artichokes are lovely little things, especially the little baby ones that have been cropping up at a couple of farmers’ markets here & there. There were some at last week’s market that looked so beautiful, so tender & spring-like, that I picked up a few on a whim (at $1/lb that day, it would have been a crime not to). I had absolutely no clue what I was going to do with them other than roast them, but that’s what I love about working with new-to-me ingredients: endless possibilities!
It turns out I still have a lot to learn about cooking artichokes. It is not a very user-friendly ingredient, and each cooking style has its own set of rules. But the beauty of artichokes – and of a lot of good, fresh, in-season produce, really – is that simple is definitely better when it comes to preparing them. I pan-roasted mine with some olive oil, lemon, sea salt & pepper, and they were divine; nothing more was needed to make them taste special. But I felt a little guilty eating them just like that, when they could potentially do so much more.
So I threw them in a blender and turned them into pesto.
I know, I know, I probably should have ventured out a bit further; but the more I reflected upon the flavors I was tasting, the more I felt like this was the right recipe for these little guys – and for me, as a novice artichoke cook. Their mild flavor seemed like the perfect complement to a big bowl of pasta, and when turned into pesto form, would be a welcome change to my stronger, more herb-centric pesto recipes.
I wasn’t really feeling the color of the cooked artichokes on its own, though, so I threw in some baby spinach to brighten things up a bit. Some spring onions, some pistachios from the fine folks at Dewey Farms (one of the wonderful farms that accepts CalFresh/SNAP benefits at our Sacramento Farmers’ Markets) and a couple more ingredients later, and voila! Another perfect pesto was born. To keep with the lovely springtime feel of the dish, I decided to throw in some fresh baby peas, as well as sweet, juicy tomatoes for a dash of color & zip. Served warm or cold, this is a fantastic little springtime dish, and lends itself to protein additions such as grilled chicken or even shrimp.
Now, you’re more than welcome to use jarred or frozen artichokes if you’re unable to find affordable fresh ones, or if you just don’t want to wrestle with one. Your prep time will be greatly reduced, but the price might be a bit higher, since some brands factor all that artichoke-wrangling into the cost. But if you can, pick up some fresh ones while they’re still in season. They’re definitely worth the trouble of all that hacking & leaf trimming, and their flavor is just sublime.
Even if my mom disagrees with me about that. ; )
Spinach-Artichoke Pesto Pasta with Tomatoes & Sweet Peas (makes 4 servings; total cost per serving: $2.75)
8 oz. your favorite pasta
1/2 c, plus 2 T olive oil
1 lb baby artichokes (or 1 14 oz. can/jar of artichoke hearts)
3 c baby spinach leaves, packed
1/2 c shelled pistachios
3 large cloves of garlic
1/4 c chopped scallions
1/4 c freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 c shredded Parmesan cheese
Salt & pepper
1 c baby peas (frozen is fine)
1 c chopped tomatoes
Grated Parmesan cheese for garnish (optional)
1. Cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain & set aside. Cut the stems from the artichokes, leaving about 1/2″ exposed (since they’re baby artichokes, you won’t have much to work with). Next, trim about 1/2″ off the top of the artichoke. Remove the first 2-3 layers of leaves and slice in half lengthwise. (If they’re bigger baby artichokes, cut into quarters.) There probably won’t be much of an actual choke, but if you do see some, remove gently with a paring knife. Once the artichokes have been prepped, squeeze a few drops of lemon juice so that they don’t become discolored.
2. Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add the olive oil. Add the artichokes and sprinkle generously with salt & pepper. Let them cook for about 6-7 minutes, until browned and tender. Remove from heat and set aside to cool for a couple of minutes.
3. When the artichokes have cooled some, combine them with the spinach, pistachios, garlic, lemon juice, cheese & remaining olive oil in a blender (or immersion blender cup). Puree until completely smooth. Check for seasoning & adjust according to taste with some salt & pepper.
4. Add about 1/3 cup of pesto to the cooked pasta and mix well. Add the peas and tomatoes and fold in gently. If you like a lot of sauce, add a couple more tablespoons of pesto until you have the desired consistency. Sprinkle with extra Parmesan cheese and some freshly ground black pepper. Serve with a crisp salad and warm crusty bread, and enjoy!