Hooray! It’s artichoke season! Time to rejoice for this edible thistle. Ever since I was a little girl, artichokes have been one of my favorite foods, quite possibly my #1. On birthdays, when my mom would ask me what I wanted for my birthday dinner, I have no recollection of any other menu item requested besides artichokes. The flavor, the sauce, and the ritual were and still are so fun. Poetic even. Plucking the leaves, dipping them into some luscious sauce, sliding them between your teeth, and working your way to the grand finale: The Heart! With it’s tender mouthfulls of incomparable vegetal flavor. Thorny artichoke…I heart you.
If you’ve never eaten one, or don’t know how, you’ve been missing out. But today is your lucky day, for I am going to teach you how to embrace this odd delicacy, and forever be changed.
Noah and I ADORE artichokes, and it was soon after we met that I remember calling my mother to gush, “He made me artichokes…I am in love.” Our artichoke romance has remained steadfast over the years, deepening even, as we have come to appreciate their cleansing and detoxifying qualities. They stimulate the liver, and gall bladder, including the production of bile. In other words, they are a digestive aid and help break down fat. In Alaska, when we could get our hands on a batch of king crab legs, we always served them with artichokes to help our bodies process the rich meal. They make a great first course, and can be stuffed with grains, bread, or meats for a stand-alone meal.
HOW TO PURCHASE ARTICHOKES
Early spring, as in NOW, is the peak season for artichokes, but they are spottily available throughout the summer with another spike in late fall.
Look for specimens that have fleshy green leaves that feel firm when squeezed around the base of the thistle. Size matters only in regards to cooking time, so it’s best to buy artichokes of similar size. Some bruising or brown marks on the outside of the leaves is of no concern, but avoid ones with siginificant dark brown marks on the inner part of the leaves, and close to the heart. Store in the vegetable drawer for 1 to 1.5 weeks, but the sooner they are eaten, the better.
Conventional artichokes are reputed to be high in pesticides, so it is strongly encouraged to seek out organic varieties.
HOW TO COOK ARTICHOKES
1. Pull the scrappy looking lower leaves from the base of the artichoke.
2. Halve a lemon, and keep nearby. Cut the stem from the base of the artichoke. Try to keep it level, as this will be the base the artichoke sits on when served.
3. Immediately rub the cut surface with lemon to prevent oxidization. Artichokes turn brown quickly wherever they’re cut, so don’t delay.
4. Slice the top 1/3 from the artichoke.
Now quick, get the lemon!
5. Use scissors or kitchen shears to snip the tips from the leaves. This tidies them up and removes thorns if there are any.
And again, don’t forget the lemon.
6. Set up your steaming apparatus of choice and fill the pot with a couple inches of water. Make sure the pot is big enough to fit all your artichokes into.
7. Place artichokes into the pot. Bring water to a boil. Cover pot and reduce heat to low/med-lo. Let the artichokes steam undisturbed for 45 minutes to 1 hour. This is a good time to make your dipping sauce (see note below).
8. After 45 minutes, begin checking the artichokes for doneness by tugging at an inner leaf with kitchen tongs. When the leaves pull away easily, the artichokes are done. It’s a good idea to double-check doneness by tasting the leaves. Simply slide the base of the leaf between your teeth. The flesh should come away easily and be tender. Cooking time may vary depending on size of artichoke, so check the smaller ones first.
HOW TO EAT AN ARTICHOKE
Apologies… the lighting here took a turn for the romantic.
1. Working from the outside in, pull a leaf from the artichoke.
2. Dip the base of the leaf into your sauce of choice (see note below).
3. Eat the base of the leaf by placing it gently between your teeth and pulling so that the tender meat of the artichoke remains in your mouth.
4. I like to keep a discard bowl on the table for the tough, fibrous portion of the leaves.
5. As you near the center of the choke, the leaves will become thinner. You can eat these by pinching a small bunch of them away at a time, and biting just the base from the leaves. Eventually the leaves will become too thin to eat. This center part is called, “The Choke”. Remove it and discard.
6. Once the remaining leaflets are removed and discarded, you will see the furry innermost part of the heart.
Scrape this fibrous pulp from the artichoke heart with a teaspoon, or a table knife.
7. Congratulations! You have reached the best part of the artichoke– the tender, meaty HEART.
Cut into bite size pieces and savor along with the last lickings of your dipping sauce. Yum!
* A NOTE ABOUT DIPPING SAUCES*
My mother always served artichokes with hollandaise sauce, which is wonderful. Lemony flavors are an excellent complement to artichokes. Noah and I serve them with this low-fat buttermilk hollandaise sauce from Eating Well, which we love for it’s fluffy, lemony, lightness. It’s plenty luscious and you won’t miss the fat. Some people serve with drawn butter, which I feel only mutes the delicate flavor, but hey, a lot of people like it. For a no-prep option try mayonnaise, with a squeeze of lemon. When a quick and easy sauce is desired, I recommend a simple lemon aioli made with light mayo, a litte olive oil, salt, pepper, and lemon juice to taste. Or jazz it up, by lighty toasting a bit of minced garlic in the olive oil before adding it to the mayo along with the other ingredients.
Experiment, and find your own favorite artichoke partner!