Artichoke is truly a spring treat. Available for only a short time in early spring (let’s forget the dehydrated specimen lingering in the produce section other times of the year), you have to watch for it and catch it when it’s in its prime.
I always think of an artichoke as a mysterious vegetable. Round and plump, enclosed in a protective thorny armor it challenges you to get close and discover what’s inside. One of my favorite poets, the incomparable Pablo Neruda, wrote a poem he titled Ode to Artichoke. Here are the first and last verses of the poem:
So you have it:
a vegetable, armed,
(call it an artichoke)
We taste of that
dismembering scale after scale.
We eat of a halcyon paste:
it is green at the artichoke heart.
In the center of the artichoke there is a heart, protected by a fuzzy layer of thorns and hair and surrounded by rows of thick leaves with thorns on their tips. The heart is considered a delicacy, perhaps because reaching it is labour intensive. The heart is not the only edible part of the artichoke though. Each of the leaves has a soft part on the bottom that can, once cooked, be dipped into lemon butter or aioli and scraped off with your teeth. Not a particularly elegant undertaking but delicious all the same.
When buying artichokes look for round, tight and heavy specimen indicating it is young, fresh and full of moisture. The leaves should be tight and the skin somewhat glossy. The outer size is not necessarily an indication that it has a big heart. A better sign indicating the size of the heart may be a wide and round bottom part. Artichokes also have a stem that may not be present every time. The inner flesh of the stem is also edible so just peel it and keep it intact with the artichoke.
Cooking artichoke is simple once you have disarmed its protective armor. To trim an artichoke for cooking lay it on its side and with a very sharp knife slice off the top 1/3 of the artichoke, removing the thorny tips. Next, peel back and snap off a few of the smaller leaves just above the stem. With a small sharp knife trim it around the base to expose the edible white flesh. To prevent oxidation immediately rub the cut surfaces with lemon and drop the trimmed artichokes into a pot filled with water, lemon juice and the wedges of squeezed lemon you just used. If you are visually and esthetically inclined you can tie a slice of lemon to the cut sides of Arti with kitchen twine. It looks pretty and tends to keep the leaves intact as it cooks. Once you have trimmed the artichoke brigade place the pot containing them over the stove and bring to a boil. The Arti brigade wants to pop up to the top and float around keeping an eye on the cook. You can cover them with cheesecloth to keep them submerged or just let them do their thing. The artichokes are cooked when a knife can be easily inserted through the heart. Ouch. When ready remove from the pot and lay in a dish upside down to drain.
To prepare a cooked artichoke for eating gently pry open the center with you fingers and carefully scoop out the hairy choke. Use a spoon to clean out the inner center just above the heart, removing the hairy, thorny bits. You can trim the stem end if Arti is to sit on plate
To serve it with lemon butter melt some butter and add lemon juice and salt to taste. Place the warm lemon butter sauce in individual dipping bowls, one per person alongside the artichoke. To eat, simply peel back the leaves, one at a time, dipping the bottom of each leave in the lemon butter and scraping it clean with your teeth. I mentioned maybe not elegant but did I mention sensual? As you eat try to pile the leaves around the artichoke in a visually pleasing concentric design rather than pile them like a hip of waste. Show some respect for the warrior. When you have peeled back the last of the leaves you are left with the artichoke’s heart. Pour the remaining lemon butter over it and continue enjoying the fruit of your labour with the aid of a fork and a knife. You have earned it as your spoils of war.
There are many other ways to prepare an artichoke and I offer some ideas in the vegetable and salad categories of this blog. If you have never cooked one, gather your strength and go to the battlefield with this lovely warrior vegetable.