In this world of fast food and instant gratification is there a place for such a discerning vegetable? This vegetable which must be treated tenderly, approached slowly and handled as delicately and deliberately as if one were courting a mate? Each taste escalates in pleasure ever so slightly – for within the meat of the artichoke lies an enzyme that heightens the sensation of sweetness upon our tongues. Peeling back each meaty petal exposes flesh in ever increasing bites. To eat an artichoke is to play a subtle game of anticipation, building toward crescendo with the disrobing of the sacred and guarded heart. To eat an artichoke is an act more akin to making love than to dining and in so lies the mystique of l’artichaut.
How to buy artichokes: Artichokes are the bud of a large flower which, as evidenced in the “choke,” are related to thistle plants. Because the artichoke plant produces buds in varying stages of ripeness, they always must be harvested by hand. Artichokes are at their peak seasonally here in the US between the months of March and June. They make a brief comeback in fall during a small window of time, mid-October. When shopping for artichokes, look for ones that are firm, with tight and unblemished petals. The cut end of the stem should be light green or brown. If it’s dark or black, the artichoke is past its prime. Hold the artichoke next to your ear and gently press the petals together. The artichoke is fresh if the petals squeak when rubbed together.
How to prepare an artichoke: Great care needs to be taken when cleaning these buds – on the tip of each petal is a sharp, curved spine which will catch on your skin and break off, leaving a nasty splinter. I find it’s much easier to trim off these barbs before attempting to clean and work with the artichokes. To trim an artichoke, with your fingers first carefully remove the small petals at the base of the flower next to the stem. These are very tough and have almost no meat on them. Next, using kitchen sheers or scissors, snip off the sharp tips of each petal. Work your way around the artichoke starting with the petals that are lowest on the artichoke and ending near the crown. When you get to the top, use a serrated knife to simply cut off the top of the artichoke. Now, with all the thorns removed you can safely wash the artichoke under cool running water without having to worry about being impaled.
I like to remove the stems from my artichokes so that they sit evenly in the pot. Cut off the stems at the base of each flower, but don’t throw them out – the stems are an extension of the tender meat of the heart. I call them “the cook’s treat” and snack on them while I’m preparing the rest of the meal. Using a small knife, peel off the thick outer skin and trim the dry end. Cook the stems along with the artichokes.
Artichokes with Vinaigrette
- 4 medium sized artichokes
- 1 lemon
Fill a stock pot or dutch oven with water. Be sure the pan is large enough to fit the artichokes evenly, side by side.
Cut the lemon in half. Squeeze the juice of one half of the lemon into the water then drop the juiced lemon into the water. Add about 1 teaspoon of salt.
Working with one artichoke at a time, trim and clean it, as described above. Run the other half of the lemon over all the cut edges of the artichoke to prevent oxidation and browning. Place the artichoke in the pot with water and lemon. Repeat the process with the remaining artichokes.
If you wish to remove the stems before cooking, cut them off at the base, but don’t discard them! The stem is an extension of the artichoke heart. Using a small knife, peel the tough outer skin and rub each stem with the cut lemon. Place them in the water and cook them along with the artichokes.
Be sure the water covers the artichokes by about an inch. Place a heavy plate on top of the artichokes to keep them submerged while cooking. Bring the pot to a simmer. Cover the pot and simmer for 40 to 50 minutes. Test for doneness by pulling off one of the petals. If it comes off easily, the artichokes are done. If not, give them a few more minutes.
Using a slotted spoon, transfer the artichokes to a colander placed in the sink. Place the artichokes upside down in the colander and allow to drain while making the vinaigrette.
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 1/2 tsp dijon mustard
- 1 tsp dry oregano, crumbled
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper (or to taste)
Whisk all the ingredients together until well combined. Divide the vinaigrette into four small dipping bowls for serving.
Serve the artichokes with the vinaigrette on the side.