2012 March: Affinity For Artichokes

When G. Terrill Brazelton, head chef at Slice Stone Pizza and Brew in Birmingham, Alabama, developed his pizza menu, including artichokes was a no-brainer. After all, Brazelton grew up eating steamed artichokes from his parent’s California garden. Today, he places artichoke hearts on the “Very Veggie” pizza alongside spinach, mushrooms, Kalamata olives, onions, jalapeños, garlic and feta. The “Mediterranean” combines artichoke hearts, red onion, Kalamata olives, sun-dried tomato, spiced lamb, pine nuts, feta and is finished with a cucumber sauce made of Greek yogurt, cucumbers, dill, lime juice, salt, pepper and minced garlic.

“We use artichokes on our pizzas because obviously they taste good, but they also have a unique trait that makes every food you eat after an artichoke sweeter,” Brazelton says.

Brazelton’s not alone in his affinity for artichokes. Once considered a “far out” pizza topping five or 10 years ago, artichokes are now common on gourmet pizza menus.

Giovanni Annunziato, owner of The Olde World Bakery & Cafe in Easthampton, New Jersey, also developed his love for artichokes during childhood. Today, artichoke hearts appear on the restaurant’s “Capricciosa” pizza (tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, sopressata, Gaeta olives and mushrooms); the “Olde World Signature” pizza (tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, roasted peppers, garlic, Gaeta olives and mushrooms) and the “Quattro Stagioni” pizza (tomato sauce, mozzarella, parmiagiano cheese, prosciutto, mushrooms and roasted peppers). To prepare, Annunziato marinates artichokes in an olive oil, salt, pepper and garlic mixture for 24 hours prior to baking.

“We want to stay true to our roots and want all the Mediterranean flavors that remind us of our childhood in Italy to be included on our pizzas,”
Annunziato says.

Brix Iverson, corporate chef and general manager of The Rock Wood Fired Pizza & Spirits in Tacoma, Washington, also enjoys utilizing artichokes. “Their mellow but distinct flavor makes them an excellent choice for pizzas because they can be combined with so many other ingredients,” he says, noting that artichokes pair well with capers, tomatoes, basil, oregano and meats like ham, prosciutto and sausage.

Iverson should know. He runs The Rock’s test kitchen. His successful “Evil Ways” pizza starts with hand-tossed pizza dough that is topped with pesto cream sauce, quartered artichoke hearts, diced red onions, sautéed spinach, sun-dried tomatoes, and Pecorino, Romano and mozzarella cheeses. “Artichokes lend themselves well to the sharp flavors of the sun-dried tomatoes and the freshly diced red onion and garlic,” he says.

Jacksonville, Florida-based The Loop Pizza Grill menus two pizzas starring artichokes: artichoke and smoked bacon and artichoke and roasted red pepper. (The Loop Pizza Grill has 14 locations throughout Florida, North Carolina and Georgia.) “Artichokes do not have an overwhelming flavor of their own, so they pair nicely with other full-flavored ingredients like red peppers and bacon,” says Cathy Manzon, director of marketing at The Loop Restaurant Group. She also lists sausage, green peppers and caramelized onions as complementary flavors.

Brazelton says there’s not an ingredient artichokes doesn’t pair with well. “Because of the way artichokes are processed, they pair well with any food you are looking to create a slightly sweeter taste such as olives, hot peppers and mushrooms,” he says.

Artichokes don’t need to be limited to pizzas. Let artichokes adorn antipasti plates or stir into cream-based soups. Entice diners with a battered and deep-fried hearts appetizer.

“Artichokes are delicious in a variety of appetizers and salads,” says Brazelton, who places artichokes in his spinach, chicken and artichoke lasagna. Iverson places baby quartered artichoke hearts in spinach artichoke dip, jalapeño artichoke mini-sized calzones and chicken picatta.

Operators do need to be aware of certain artichoke handling and prep tips. To avoid a soggy pizza, operators must drain canned products well. To prevent artichokes from watering out during baking, Brazelton gives them a quick chop and squeeze before adding to pies. When preparing fresh artichokes he puts a small amount of lemon juice in the cooking water to mellow the flavor. Artichokes are a member of the thistle family, “so always inspect for thorns that are left behind,” Iverson reminds.

Artichokes are available year-round in sizes ranging from baby to jumbo, either canned, jarred, frozen or fresh. Processed artichoke hearts and bottoms can be found whole or quartered. Quartered artichokes are the least expensive, but also the most delicate. Operators must practice caution when using since the product can fall apart. Whole artichoke hearts are the most expensive.

Many operators prefer canned product for its consistency, minimal prep and easy portioning. Iverson purchases imported baby artichoke hearts from Spain, canned and quartered. “If you purchase a prepped artichoke product, most of the work is done for you,” he says. Manzon agrees: “Canned artichokes allows us to get greater coverage on pizzas so the guest gets a little artichoke with every bite.”

Melanie Wolkoff Wachsman is a freelance writer in Louisville, Kentucky. She covers food, business and lifestyle trends.