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Artichoke Fields Forever

Cruising the I-5 on a warm spring day while dancing in my seat to the cool sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club… could life get any sweeter? My recent road trip down the California coast to Los Angeles and back home via the Central Valley was a welcome break and a chance to visit the farms and vineyards that provide so much of our food and wine. And let’s face it, road trips are a great excuse for serious eating at funky diners and tempting roadside farm stands.

The great Castroville artichoke fields loomed on the horizon where the Salinas Valley intersects with the Monterey Peninsula. This is Steinbeck country, where the author set many of his classic novels. Its cool, fog-kissed landscape makes this the artichoke capitol of the world. I spotted the Pezzini farm and roadside store and pulled in. Surrounded by fields of tall, lush plants with thousands of globes pointing skyward, I explored a bit and worked up an appetite for their famous fried artichokes.

Inside, a delightful lady prepared my order and told me that freshly harvested artichokes have a sweeter, more intense flavor than the older ones sold in supermarket, which can become slightly bitter. I learned that the popular baby artichokes are fully mature and grow at the bottom of the plants. Unlike the large globes, they don’t have inedible fuzzy centers.

As she worked, I asked how they made their dipping sauce. “It’s homemade ranch dressing created for the ‘universal’ palate,” she explained. “Personally, I like it spicier with grated parmesan cheese. That’s the best.”

I took my piping hot morsels to the field, sat down and dug in. The coating was a bit “bready,” but smooth. She was right about the fresh artichokes—they had a clear, intense flavor that was pure pleasure. The dipping sauce was OK but nothing memorable. I contemplated how I might improve on the dish. The batter should be light and crisp, with a full-flavored sauce that makes the artichokes shine. I finished up and bought a large bag of baby artichokes and some large globes.

Back home in my kitchen, I created a simple beer batter spiced with onion, garlic and chili powders and a little salt and pepper. Panko (Japanese bread crumbs) supplied the perfect crunch while keeping the batter light.

Homemade ranch dressing is more subtle than its bottled and packaged brothers, but it creates a cool first taste that prepares the palate for the initial crunch and final burst of delicious artichoke flavor. I tested the recipes on family and friends over the weekend. Amid stories from the road trip, they gobbled plates of fried artichokes and deemed them beyond wonderful.

Of all the food eaten on the road trip, this was the most memorable—forever tied to Castroville and the amazing artichoke fields that feed people around the world.

Get a printable Fried Artichokes with Home Made Ranch Dressing recipe