Artichoke: The Unlikeliest Vegetable

Kristen Frederickson

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There are a few foods in this world that must have required an awful lot of imagination, desperation, and even starvation to convince our ancestors to give them a try. In this category I put lobsters, olives, and most of all artichokes. What on earth gave anyone the idea that inside this leathery, spiky-leafed conundrum were hidden buttery delights, if only one could get to them?

A lot of good cooks I know are flummoxed by fresh artichokes and pass them by in the markets. To be sure, there’s nothing automatically edible about them and they require a fair amount of preparation for even the simplest way to eat them. But if you bother to take the trouble, they are wonderfully nutritious–containing no fat and large amounts of fiber, vitamins B6, C and K, magnesium, niacin and folates–and lots of convivial fun to eat.

Artichokes are of the thistle family, growing on tall stalks (part of which are edible). If left to their own devices, artichokes pass the edible stage and blossom into lovely purple flowers, resembling sunflowers in shape (to which they are also related).

A lot of good cooks I know are flummoxed by fresh artichokes and pass them by in the markets.

In the United States, artichokes come from California, and in fact there is a town called Castroville, California, which claims to be the “Artichoke Capital of the World,” and as such celebrates every spring with an Artichoke Festival (unaccountably including a classic car show, but that’s California for you). These are the so-called “globe” artichokes because of their round, dense shape, and must be cooked in order to be eaten.

European artichokes (including those available in London, my winter home) come from Italy, where the Roman variety are the globe artichokes described above. There are also artichokes from Sardinia, which are called “spiky” or “spiny” because they are really, really sharp at the tips of their leaves. These are delightfully small and delicate vegetables, once you get past the frighteningly sharp spikes, and can be eaten raw in lovely salads.

So, if you find yourself in front of a display of plump, mysterious globe artichokes, take a pile home, get out a cutting board, a sharp serrated knife, a pair of scissors and a bowl of lemony water, and get to work. The artichokes must have their stems cut quite short in order to fit in a typical household’s saucepan with a lid. Then with your serrated knife, cut off the tops of the artichokes about an inch or so down (again, so they will fit the pan), and snap off the toughest outer leaves at the base of the artichokes. Once you get to nice clean, fresh, tight leaves, cut off the tips of each one with your scissors and drop the artichokes into the acidulated water to stop their cut bits from browning.

At this point, when it’s time to cook them, you can go dead simple, or get a little fancy. The simplest route is to steam the artichokes in salty water for about 40 minutes, or until you can easily pull a leaf off the artichoke. Set aside to cool slightly while you make a vinaigrette, or melt some butter. Then just go to town, pulling off leaf after leaf and scraping the plump bit that was attached to the globe, with your teeth, after dunking it in the dressing or butter. When you get to the very tenderest leaves, they can come off in soft multiples. Finally you’ll reach the center, the “choke,” which is hairy and inedible. Scoop this out with a sharp spoon and discard with the pile of eaten leaves. Then what you’re left with is the heart of the artichoke, which is meaty and hefty and delicious, dipped in more dressing or butter.

Or you can keep the heart to the side, slice it thin and add it to any pizza, salad, or even an eggy frittata. All these suggestions will work with spiny raw artichoke hearts as well.

If simply steaming and eating the globe artichoke doesn’t sound exciting enough, add some flavors of Italy to the water.

Most people’s first experiences with artichokes are in fact with these “hearts,” marinated in glass jars with olive oil and herbs. Usually some tiny inner leaves are still attached to these lovely antipasti. They are marvelously easy to make at home.  Simply quarter the steamed artichoke heart and suspend in a jar covered with olive oil and flavored with garlic, lemon skin, chili peppers, black peppercorns, Italian herbs, whatever you like. Marinate for about 3 weeks in the refrigerator and then enjoy.

Marinated artichokes–whether store-bought or made at home–can be made into a simply heavenly dip (courtesy of my brother-in-law Joel) with mayonnaise and Parmesan, baked until hot and bubbly. This spread on a baguette slice is a beauty.

My friend Elizabeth Minchilli in Rome has invented an incredible dish of sautéed chicken livers and artichokes, which is perfect for any brunch (with guests cool enough to eat offal, that is). I have heard tell (thanks to my friend Fiona) of a delicious recipe by Bill Granger for a ham and artichoke lasagna, but I must confess I have not yet tried it. For the next adventurous dinner party, it will be a must.

A word must be said about so-called “Jerusalem artichokes.” I (and lots of other people) find them quite indigestible, although the soup I once made from them was delicious, going down. These are duplicitous little things, tuberous vegetables much more like potatoes than artichokes, to which they bear almost no resemblance (other than also being a member of the sunflower family). They are, in fact, neither from Jerusalem, nor artichokes. Discuss.

Whatever you do with your artichokes, take some time to enjoy their purply green raw glories before you cook them. As delicious as all these dishes are, it’s very difficult to get a beautiful photo of them because artichokes turn a rather unappealing army gray-green when they are cooked. But this element is easily overlooked when you bite into the delicious, rather exotic leaves and hearts, congratulating yourself all the while on your bravery and imagination.

 Are you a adventurous cook? Do you tackle artichokes when they are available?

Photo credit: Avery Curran