The Art of the Artichoke
A little bit of extra work reaps big rewards!
Nasty. That’s how so many people describe artichokes. Maybe this is because the artichoke isn’t understood by most cooks or because of its thorny, tough leaves that have hurt the fingers of many. But artichokes are one of the glories of spring and fall. Their hues range from delightful purples to all shades of green. Artichokes are members of the thistle family, and there are many varieties. Locally, the most common variety is the Globe artichoke—big, meaty and thorny. Artichokes were introduced to America by way of California, where Italian immigrant farmers planted the first commercial crop. Today Castroville, California, is the artichoke capital and main source for artichokes sold nationwide.
So here’s what to look for when buying artichokes. The leaves should be closed, not fanned open; tight leaves mean the vegetable is fresh. The artichoke should squeak when rolled under your hand. This is an indication that there is moisture present and the artichoke is not old. It should feel heavy in your hand, and the stem end should not be soft or bendable. There should be a uniform color, and aficionados agree that the best tasting artichoke is one that has been nipped by frost and has tinges of brown on its leaves.
Artichokes can be prepared in many ways, including stuffing them whole; using only the hearts and stuffing their cavities; marinating them as part of a salad; or cutting them in wedges and stewing them. Artichokes are also exquisite served plain with melted butter. When I want to wow company, I stuff artichokes with spicy Italian sausage, or stew them with tomatoes and wine for cold-weather eating. Still, I like artichokes best plain—straight up, unpretentious.
Getting to the most tender part of the artichoke requires the fortitude of an archaeologist—in the kitchen, we must scrape away layers of leaves and struggle to remove that hairy choke at the very bottom before the big payoff, the tender heart.
But, there is an easier way. Strip away the tough outer leaves (and this could mean a couple of layers) with your fingers by bending the leaves backward, or using scissors and cut them off. You’ll know when you have taken off enough of the tough leaves when the color of the leaves turns from dark to pale green. Chop off about 1/4-inch from the top and scrape the stem end with a vegetable peeler. Cut the artichokes in half lengthwise and place them cut-side down in a large saucepan. Cover them with water and bring to a boil. Lower to the heat to medium low, cover the pot and cook until you can pull off one of the leaves without any effort. Drain and cool. Remove the remaining outer leaves (save them to nibble on). Use a small spoon or a melon-ball scooper to easily remove the hairy choke and pale yellow leaves.
Prepared this way, artichokes become edible containers that can be filled with cheese, cooked rice, diced vegetables or just melted butter, which is my favorite. Nutty and mild with a slightly sweet taste, the artichoke is art itself.
Mary Ann Esposito's artichoke recipes