Sometimes when I look at an artichoke I wonder about the first person who decided to try and eat such an odd-looking prickly flower. It’s part of the thistle family, and in addition to the sometimes formidable thorns on the leaves it also contains a prickly choke on the inside. I grew up eating them so it wasn’t something I batted an eye at as a kid, but I’ve noticed that those who didn’t find them on their plates as a kid had a harder time with them. Artichoke hearts on pizza are one thing, but how to go from the plant in the vegetable bin to dinner? I’ve had friends call me to ask how it’s done, and so I thought I’d share here.
My cousin and her husband lived in New York for four years while she did her graduate work and she said that she couldn’t find the enormous green beauties easily in the markets there. They were her favorite vegetable, and the ones she found were as tiny as golf balls, and probably meant to be fried whole and served as appetizers. In California we are used to large specimens, easily the size of softballs or a grapefruit. They come into season late winter and into the spring. When selecting them, look for firmness and tightly closed leaves. Green or purple coloration is the norm, but avoid anything that looks brownish.
Raw artichokes have a chemical that can make your fingers taste, well, odd and unpleasant, so be sure to wash or wear kitchen gloves while preparing if you are going to be eating after.
1. The first thing I always do is slice off the stem–but don’t toss it! Cooked and peeled, it is as sweet and delicious as the artichoke’s heart. Since I typically steam them, though, I cut off the stem so it can sit flat in a pan.
2. I then slice the top of the artichoke off using a serrated knife. I have a regular vegetable knife in the photo above, and that works just fine in some cases, but artichokes are fibrous and a serrated blade has a better grip.
3. Remove the thorns by snipping the top of each leaf off with kitchen shears. Again, you can use a knife for this, and I have before, but it’s so easy to use scissors, and it looks much neater.
At this point, it’s ready to steam. My family always cooked their artichokes by putting an inexpensive collapsible steamer basket into a pot filled with about an inch or two of water. Clamp the lid on, turn up the heat, and after it comes to a boil turn the heat way down to a simmer and steam it for about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on the size of the vegetable. Some people season their artichokes with slivers of garlic between the leaves or a good dousing of lemon pepper, but I usually cook mine plain and make a seasoned sauce to serve with. Artichokes pair naturally with creamy, dairy-based sauces, but olive oil-based ones are great, too.
Half the fun of having an artichoke is the actual process of eating it. It isn’t a food you can eat in a hurry because it takes time to scrape the meat off the leaves. This makes it a perfect appetizer or food for sharing with friends as the leisurely pace of eating it leaves plenty of time for conversation. Have small bowls out for sauce an another plate or large bowl for discarded leaves and share among the whole table. I can eat an artichoke myself in a sitting, but it’s much more fun to share with friends.