Getting To The Heart Of The Artichoke

The one time I went to Rome, I didn't eat artichokes. (I didn't eat much pasta either, but that's another story.) Wandering through Italy's golden, sunlit afternoons, I held my breath as I gazed at the ruins of the Colosseum and dipped my fingers in the Trevi Fountain. I drank countless cups of cappuccino in the morning and swilled strong shots of espresso in the hot afternoons. There were probably a lot of pastries and cold glasses of wine. But no artichokes.

To be honest, this was not so much because I couldn't bear to sit still long enough to linger over lunch as it was because I hadn't yet come to appreciate that thistle-y vegetable that's so endemic to Rome – artichoke dishes graced menus of nearly all of those restaurants crammed along the side streets of town – and to Italy as a whole. Zucchini sauteed in good olive oil until soft and sweet? Piles of gnocchi in an onion-flecked tomato sauce? Yes, please. But hold the artichokes.

I had never liked the way they tasted, though that could be because I'd eaten them mainly as garnishes on pizza and not in their natural state. I didn't like the way they looked; I didn't even like their color. As a vegetarian who eats a lot of vegetables, and as a native Californian, this is deplorable – if artichokes are emblematic of Rome, they could also be called the quintessential California vegetable, preferring a marine climate and frost-free areas with cool, foggy summers (if you've visited Northern California, you know summers are infuriatingly chilly).

The first artichokes grown in the United States were planted in the 1890s by immigrant Italian farmers in Half Moon Bay, Calif., about 30 miles south of San Francisco. In time, nearby Castroville became the nation's leading producer; it has an artichoke festival every May to celebrate the vegetable's first season of the year (a perennial, the plant comes into season during both spring and fall).

Fortunately, artichoke inspiration finally struck this winter during a sunny trip to central California. Highway 1 taken south winds along the rocky coast past empty stretches of beach and sand dunes to the right, with miles of neatly planted artichoke fields to the left. It seemed ridiculous that I'd never developed a penchant for artichokes, much less cooked them. Was I being disloyal to my home state? I'd learned to love the Brussels sprout — surely I could also love to the funny-looking artichoke.

Prepping Artichokes For Cooking

An artichoke sliced in half, exposing the fuzzy choke i i

hide captionAn artichoke sliced in half, exposing the fuzzy choke

Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
An artichoke sliced in half, exposing the fuzzy choke

An artichoke sliced in half, exposing the fuzzy choke

Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Rinse fresh artichokes to remove the natural, light film the vegetable produces while growing and which can give the artichoke a slightly bitter taste.

"Top and tail" the artichoke: With a sharp, serrated knife, cut about 1 inch from the top of the artichoke. Trim the stem about one-half inch, or remove the stem altogether if you want it to sit up on a plate for stuffing or filling. Peel away the outermost layer of the thorns until you reach the pale green or yellow more tender thorns. With a spoon or melon baller, remove the fuzzy choke (on regular artichokes; for baby artichokes this step is not necessary).

Cook according to recipe.

Oh, but it takes work to cook an artichoke, and there are so many other things to do instead: beets to roast, cauliflower to devour, Brussels sprouts to fall for.

Preparing an artichoke for eating is a bit more time-consuming than just throwing a myriad of seasonal vegetables into the oven with a splash of olive oil and salt. Yet often the best things aren't easy, and so it is with artichokes. A little labor results in a major payoff – beneath its thorny exterior lies a heart that's soft, almost sweet and utterly delicious.

Back home in San Francisco, though, I tried to forget my inspiration, preferring instead to stuff myself with spring's first asparagus (I dearly love asparagus). But on the afternoon of the first day of spring, I grabbed a clutch of artichokes, took up my sharpest knife and tried to figure out how to start.

Having never cooked an artichoke, I was slightly intimidated – the thing seems almost impenetrable. Nonetheless, I went boldly forth (after carefully reading instructions on how to attack it), slicing and peeling and occasionally catching my fingers on the thorny leaves. I really had to work at it, too – those things are pretty tough and aren't always easy to open. Finally, though, I made some progress. I found the inner leaves to be pale green and softer the closer I got to the artichoke's heart; the biggest surprise was that as I peeled away the leaves, I found a fuzzy flower inside. Called the "choke," the flower resembles a thistle, its downy, purplish strands touched with yellow.

There are so many ways to eat artichokes: blanched, steamed, grilled, stuffed, marinated. Hearts can be tucked into frittatas or souffles; leaves can be roasted and used as vehicles for herbed aioli or a decadent garlic-butter sauce. As an added attraction, artichokes are high in vitamin C, folate, fiber, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium.

About The Author

Nicole Spiridakis lives in San Francisco and writes about food, travel and her native state on her blog, cucinanicolina.com. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, chow.com and other publications.

Look for artichokes that are a deep green, with tightly closed leaves. Keep fresh lemons handy to rub on the vegetable once you cut it – this helps prevent browning – and to add to cooking water. Artichokes are best cooked when they're very fresh, but can be stored for a few days in the fridge. In a pinch, frozen artichoke hearts are acceptable, though fresh is always better.

Maybe, as Pablo Neruda wrote in the poem "Ode to the Artichoke," the best way to eat an artichoke is to cook and immediately peel away its leaves one by one (perhaps doused in sweet butter) until you reach its heart, which can then be slowly savored:

The artichoke

With a tender heart

Dressed up like a warrior,

Standing at attention, it built

A small helmet ...

Scale by scale

We strip off

The delicacy

And eat

The peaceful mush

Of its green heart

That's tempting stuff, although I'm rather partial to an artichoke-spinach soup myself.

Steamed Artichokes With Basil Aioli

This is the classic, simple way to prepare artichokes. You may serve this with salted, melted butter, although lightly herbed mayonnaise is a nice way to bring out the artichoke's flavor. Other fresh herbs, such as mint or rosemary, may be swapped for the basil.

Steamed Artichokes With Basil Aioli i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Steamed Artichokes With Basil Aioli
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes 4 servings

4 large, tight-leaved artichokes

1 lemon

Salt

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to boil. Working with one artichoke at a time, pull off all dark green outer leaves until only tender inner yellow leaves remain. Cut off top 1 inch of artichoke. Cut off stem and trim around stem base of artichoke. With a spoon or melon baller, remove the fuzzy choke. Repeat with remaining artichokes. Squeeze lemon juice into boiling water, and add the artichokes.

Keep the artichokes submerged and boil until a knife inserted into the base barely meets resistance, about 20 minutes.

Drain and serve at room temperature with herbed aioli or melted butter — or both.

To eat, remove a leaf and dip in aioli or butter. With your teeth, scrape the meaty part of the leaf (and aioli) into your mouth, and devour.


Basil Aioli

Mayonnaise is slightly intimidating to make from scratch, but it needn't be. It just takes a bit of patience and fortitude. Here, the addition of garlic and fresh herbs perks up the familiar condiment, and is a delicious, slightly different complement to the steamed artichokes.

Makes 1/2 cup (easily doubled)

1 large egg yolk

1 clove garlic, chopped and ground to a paste

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground pepper, to taste

1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon lemon juice

1/4 cup olive oil and 1/4 cup vegetable oil, combined

4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh basil

Place the yolk in the bottom of a small mixing bowl and whisk until creamy. Add the garlic, salt, pepper, mustard and lemon juice and whisk vigorously to blend well. Then, whisking constantly, add a little bit of the combined oils at a time in a steady stream, whisking to create an emulsion between the yolk and the oil. Continue whisking until all the oil has been added (the aioli should be pale yellow and quite thick). Add the basil and whisk well to combine.

'Cream' Of Artichoke Soup

When vegetables are pureed, especially with the addition of a potato, what results is a smooth, velvety soup that requires no cream at all.

'Cream' Of Artichoke Soup i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
'Cream' Of Artichoke Soup
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes 4 servings

4 cups water

1 tablespoon lemon juice

4 garlic cloves, crushed

3 pounds artichokes (3 to 4 medium)

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 leeks, washed and with white parts thinly sliced

1 medium-size russet potato, peeled and quartered

3 cups vegetable broth

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground pepper

Sprig of fresh thyme or 1 teaspoon dried thyme

2 cups spinach

Bring water to a boil with lemon juice and two garlic cloves. Trim the artichokes: cut away stem and most of the tough outer leaves. Cut about 1/4 off the top. With a spoon or melon baller, remove the fuzzy choke. Reduce heat to a simmer and add the artichokes to the water, and cook for 30 to 40 minutes until tender.

Meanwhile, in a large saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the leeks and remaining garlic and saute until soft, about 5 minutes. Add the potato, vegetable broth, salt, pepper and thyme and bring to a boil. Simmer until the potato is tender.

When artichokes are cooked, remove from the cooking water. Remove their hearts by peeling away remaining leaves and add to the pot with the potato and leeks. Add the spinach. Cook a few minutes together, then remove from heat and, using a stick blender or a food processor, puree until smooth. Add a little more water or broth if you want a thinner soup. Taste and then adjust seasonings if necessary.

Lemon-Thyme Braised Artichokes

Baby artichokes are a variety of artichoke that matures at a smaller size and lacks a fully developed choke. Once you peel away the outer leaves, the entire artichoke is edible, and can be roasted or simmered and pureed into soup or sauce – or simply braised in wine and herbs. I like these with a lot of good, chewy bread and a salad – in fact, you could add them to a salad if for some strange reason you have leftovers – eaten hot and right out of the pan.

Lemon-Thyme Braised Artichokes i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Lemon-Thyme Braised Artichokes
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Serves 2 (easily doubled)

2 lemons, halved

8 baby artichokes with long stems

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

2 cups water

1 cup white wine

1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil

5 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme

3 shallots, minced

1 teaspoon salt

Squeeze 2 lemon halves into a large bowl of cold water.

Cut off top inch of 1 artichoke and bend back outer leaves until they snap off close to base (keep stem attached). Discard several more layers of leaves in same manner until you reach pale yellow leaves.

Cut off remaining leaves 1/2 inch above top of artichoke base using a sharp knife.

Trim remaining artichokes in same manner.

Combine lemon juice, water, wine, oil, thyme, shallots and 1 teaspoon salt in a 4- to 5-quart heavy pot (wide enough to hold artichokes in 1 layer with stems pointing upward) and bring to a simmer.

Stand artichokes, stem ends up, in liquid and cover with a round of parchment paper. Simmer, covered with parchment and lid, until just tender when artichoke bottom is pierced with a knife, 20 to 30 minutes.

Transfer artichokes with a slotted spoon to a shallow serving dish. Boil cooking liquid until reduced to about 1/2 cup, about 20 minutes. During last 2 minutes of boiling, whisk liquid until it emulsifies. Pour over artichokes. Garnish with a few sprigs of fresh thyme.

Artichoke-Asparagus Frittata

Make this now, when both artichokes and asparagus are in season. It tastes completely of spring. I use a cast-iron pan because it seems to cook the frittata very evenly and goes easily between stove and oven, though a heavy skillet will work well, too.

Artichoke-Asparagus Frittata i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Artichoke-Asparagus Frittata
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes 4 servings

1 pound baby artichokes, trimmed of outer leaves

6 large eggs

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons dried oregano

4 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

1 cup chopped spinach leaves

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 medium red onion, finely chopped

5 or 6 thin asparagus stalks, with the woody ends discarded and the remaining stalk cut in half

1 cup chopped spinach leaves

Steam artichokes until tender or boil gently in a pot of generously salted water, 10 to 15 minutes. Drain, rinse with cold water and quarter.

Beat the eggs in a medium bowl. Whisk in the salt, pepper, oregano and 3 tablespoons of the cheese. Stir in the spinach.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a 10-inch, heavy nonstick skillet, and add the onion. Cook for a few minutes until onion starts to wilt. Add the artichokes. Cook, stirring often, until golden brown, 5 to 8 minutes. Pour in the egg mixture. Swirl the pan to distribute the eggs, filling evenly over the surface. Scatter the asparagus over the top or arrange by hand if you like. Shake the pan gently, tilting it slightly with one hand while lifting up the edges of the omelet with a spatula in your other hand.

Turn the heat down to low and cook for 10 minutes, shaking the pan very gently every 2 minutes or so to make sure the eggs cook evenly. When the eggs are mostly set, remove from heat.

Finish the frittata in the oven for 1 to 5 minutes, watching to make sure the top doesn't burn and making sure the eggs are firm and cooked through. (It should brown slightly and will puff up a bit.) Remove from the heat and immediately sprinkle on the remaining Parmesan cheese.

Serve hot, warm or at room temperature.

Herb-Marinated Artichokes

Make and use these on pizzas, add to pasta sauce, or just pile on a piece of bread for a quick snack.

Marinated Artichokes i i
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Marinated Artichokes
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR

Makes 1 pint

2 cups plus 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, separated

1 teaspoon dried thyme

1 teaspoon dried rosemary

2 teaspoons chopped fresh basil

3 garlic cloves, smashed

3 strips lemon rind

1 teaspoon black peppercorns

Juice of 1 lemon

9 baby artichokes

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

1 carrot, peeled and cut into thin sticks

1 onion, cut into wedges

1 cup dry white wine

1 red pepper, halved with seeds removed and thinly sliced

1 pint jar or two 1/2 pint jars

To make the flavored oil, in a small pan over low heat, combine 2 cups olive oil, herbs, garlic, lemon rind and peppercorns. Gently warm the mixture until it is just heated. Remove from heat and let cool.

Meanwhile, fill a large bowl with cold water and add the lemon juice. Pull off the outermost layer of tough leaves from the artichokes. Peel and trim the stems, removing 1/8 inch from each base. Halve each artichoke lengthwise, and submerge it in the lemon water to prevent discoloring.

Place the carrot, onion and pepper in a large saute pan and arrange the artichokes in a single layer on top. Drizzle with the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil and the wine. Cook over high heat until the mixture starts to bubble, then reduce heat to low. Cover and simmer until the artichoke bases and leaves are tender, about 35 minutes. Remove from the heat and cool completely.

Using a slotted spoon, remove the artichokes and discard the braising vegetables and liquid. Pour the artichokes into a 1-pint sterilized canning jar or divide evenly between 2 sterilized jars, then cover with the flavored oil. Tightly seal the jars and set in a cool, dark place for up to 3 weeks. After opening the jars, store in the refrigerator.

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