Thursday, May 2, 2013

Consider the Artichoke

When I was growing up, artichokes were a mysterious vegetable, closed and secretive, and impossibly elegant.  They were a thing of myth that I read about in books, descriptions of lavish Victorian dinner parties where they were served hot, dipped in clarified butter, or cold at luncheon, stuffed with crabmeat.

Every once in a great while we would have them at home, always served with butter for dipping, and maybe a wedge of lemon.  They were festive and delicious and rare.  More often than not, my experience with artchokes was in the form of canned, mixed with all sorts of unctuous cheeses and mayonnaise and secret ingredients that my godmother used to make insanely good hot artichoke dip, served with cocktail rye.  I could eat a vat of the stuff.

The canned versions showed up on salads, when we started getting more creative at home, but those whole, fresh, steamed beauties were still a rarity.

There are certain moments I remember vividly from my childhood that imprinted and made me make early decisions about how I was going to handle my business as a grown up.  I remember the old black and white movie my dad and I watched one sunday afternoon, where a guest arrived unexpectedly at the home of the heroine and was offered a drink.  "Champagne, please." the guest said without a second thought, and the lady of the house  went to fetch a bottle of bubbly.  The idea that someone could just ask for and RECEIVE champagne, on a random weekday afternoon and not on New Years or at a party seemed insanely fabulous, and I swore I would always have bubbly at the ready when I was a grown up, and not only drink it on special occasions.  And you can ask any of my friends about "Tuesday Champagne" at my house, it is a promise I kept.

Some of my vows weren't the smartest.  I hate coming home to a dark house.  Years of parental admonitions to "Shut the lights off!" when leaving rooms made me mutter under my breath that when I had my own house I would leave the lights on all the time.  And I do.  Compulsively.  All over the house.  Makes my poor Charming Suitor crazy, and he is forever shutting lights off behind me and tsking.

Artichokes are like that for me.  The Champagne of vegetables.  I always loved them so much, and hated that they were relegated to special occasions, that they were so infrequent.  So when I started cooking for myself, one of the first things I wanted to master, in addition to a perfect roasted chicken, was the simple, steamed, artichoke.  Despite their look of vegetal armor, the little spikes that draw blood if you aren't careful, the furry choke that threatens to live up to its name if you accidentally try and eat it, artichokes are simpler than you think.

Buy them fresh, look for ones that feel slightly heavy for their size and have tightly compacted leaves.  Artichokes are best between May and July, but whenever you spot them, just give a squeeze to see what kind of shape they are in.  The leaves should almost squeak under your hands.  And for every two artichokes, be sure you have one lemon handy.

First off, use a sharp serrated knife for your trim work.  These prickly thistles love to roll around on you and you need something that grips.  I use an 8 inch serrated bread knife.  If you are prepping them for a dinner party and aren't going to cook them right away, make a large bowl of acidulated water (juice of one lemon or 2 T white vinegar to every 4 c water) for storing up to 6 hours.  If you are prepping for cooking right away, you can just rub all the cut edges with a half a lemon to prevent browning.

Slice off the stem end flush.  I know the restaurants love to peel the stems, but frankly it is annoying and you don't get enough extra meat to make it worth your while.  You want to be able to work fast and this is the best way.  Using your serrated knife and cutting away from you, trim the hard covering off of the bottom in about one inch sections until the whole thing is exposed, you'll take most of the outer leaves of as a result, which is a good thing.  You just start at the center and slice outward, all the way around.  Any leaves remaining that look sad or brown, you can just snap off.  Then put the thing on its side and slice the top off, taking all the prickles away in one fell swoop.  Don't forget to either rub the edges with lemon or drop in your water bath, or you will have ugly brown bottoms and leaves.

To cook, place the artichokes bottom side up on a steamer basket over 2 inches of cold water in a large pot.  Don't boil them, they'll get waterlogged.  If you don't have a steamer basket, turn a colander over and prop them on there.  Cover and cook on high about 30-40 minutes until the bottoms give easily to the poke of a fork.  uncover and let sit there upside down for 10 minutes.  You can serve hot or cold, but my fave is room temp, all their flavors really come to the front then.  And while usually I would not shy away from any butter-delivery-device, I don't do the butter dunk with my artichokes.  I make a pungent and thick vinaigrette with shallots, lemon juice, dijon mustard, capers, and extra virgin olive oil, going far heavier on the lemon and dijon than I would for delicate lettuces.  The acid brings out the richness of the artichoke meat instead of competing.  But you should dunk however you like.

The best part is that artichokes are very good for you, low in calories (about 50 per), high in fiber.  When they are in season, Charming Suitor and I eat as many as we can...I will make 8 at a time and keep them in the fridge for snacking or quick easy lunches.  Artichokes and a roasted chicken is our idea of a heavenly spring or summer dinner.  And nothing goes with it better than a crisp glass of champagne.  Especially if it is Tuesday.

Yours in Good Taste,
The Polymath


  1. Love this post - I have so many memories of my mom tied to artichokes. I was a picky eater when I was a kid, which is ironic now since I want to try everything and cook constantly! My mom would buy artichokes and steam them up for a random weekday lunch and they piqued my elementary-aged curiosity because they were such a bizarre looking food item. I remember when she finally convinced me to give them a try and how delicious they were dipped into melted butter...yum! Thanks for triggering such a great memory of my mom, and I can't wait til my daughter is old enough for me to convince how delicious artichokes are.

  2. When my daughter was about 6, we had guests who brought steamed artichokes for a potluck. She politely inquired where the drawn butter was, tut tutting that the guest had not provided this. I raised her right.

    I make 8 at a time, but I stuff with a bread crumb mixture for my spouse. I think they're tasteless but they are just like his nonna used to make - Italian comfort food.

    Speaking of Italy, countless outdoor markets feature a little old lady peeling artichokes down and chucking them into a bucket of acidulated water. I took a cooking class there, artichoke risotto, and we did likewise, using the peeled and chopped stem in with the sliced, cleaned choke. Yum.

  3. We always have bubbles in the fridge - you never know when you'll need them!

  4. My favorite food and my favorite drink! I vividly remember my first artichoke: The Carlyle in NYC. I didn't even realize we could have them at home. Being a good southern gal, our vegetables were of the casserole variety until I was a teenager and learned the sins of creams and cheeses in such quantities! But the king of veggies and the queen of drinks reign supreme in my household too! But sadly are not a weekly occurrence. You've inspired me to be decadent. (Sent by Julie's #FF twitter... so I can thank her weekly!)
    XO ~Kim @