Taking the Mystery out of the Artichoke

Artichokes and lemons i i

In season during the spring and briefly during the fall, artichokes' soft, buttery taste can't be beat — if you know how to tackle them. Susan Russo for NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Susan Russo for NPR
Artichokes and lemons

In season during the spring and briefly during the fall, artichokes' soft, buttery taste can't be beat — if you know how to tackle them.

Susan Russo for NPR

About the Author

Susan Russo is a food writer in San Diego. She publishes stories, recipes and photos on her cooking blog, Food Blogga. When she isn't writing about her Italian family back in Rhode Island or life with her husband in Southern California, she can be found milling around a local farmers market buying a lot more food than two people could possibly eat.

There are some people who don't know how to eat artichokes. This has only recently come to my attention. Having grown up in an Italian-American family, I assumed everyone ate artichokes.

When I was about 6, my mom sat me down at the kitchen table, placed a large stuffed artichoke, several napkins and an empty bowl in front of me and said, "It's time to learn how to eat an artichoke."

I remember thinking, "How the heck am I supposed to eat that?" It looked like a scary stuffed cactus. However, once I tasted the soft, buttery artichoke flesh and moist, chewy bread filling, I was smitten. Stuffed artichokes are still among my favorite foods.

Eating an artichoke is actually easier than it looks. Start by plucking a leaf from the outer part of the artichoke. Grasp the leaf with two hands, and place it flesh side down against your bottom teeth. Biting down with your upper teeth, gently pull the leaf away from your mouth, scraping off the creamy artichoke flesh at the bottom of the leaf. Finally, discard what remains of the leaf. If the flesh doesn't scrape off easily, then it probably isn't cooked enough. (Trust me, no amount of chewing will help.)

Continue plucking leaves, working your way to the tender center. Just before reaching the delectable heart, you may encounter some thin, purple-tipped, prickly leaves (though if properly prepared, they should already have been removed). Pluck and discard them, as they are not edible.

Then get ready for the most glorious part of the artichoke — the heart, the caviar of vegetables. Located at the bottom of the artichoke, the heart has a nutty, earthy flavor and thick, custard-like consistency. It needs no stuffing, no dips. Using a fork and knife, simply slice the heart thinly and savor every mouthful. My grandmother warned us never to trust anybody who throws away the heart.

Native to the Mediterranean, the artichoke is actually the edible flower bud of a thistle plant in the sunflower family. In fact, if left to develop, the artichoke will blossom into an extraordinary, spiky, brilliant purple flower.

Artichokes are one of the oldest know foods, dating to antiquity. According to legend, when Zeus spotted Cynara, a beautiful young mortal, he transformed her into a goddess. Homesick, Cynara sneaked back into the mortal world. When Zeus discovered her deception, he turned her into an artichoke. The artichoke's scientific name, Cynara scolymus, reflects this story.

Historians believe that artichokes were cultivated by North African Moors beginning about 800 A.D., and that the Saracens, another Arab group, introduced artichokes to Italy. This may explain how the Arabic al-qarshuf — meaning "thistle" — became articiocco in Italian and eventually "artichoke" in English.

Artichokes are still grown primarily in the Mediterranean. California, with its Mediterranean-like climate, produces virtually 100 percent of the U.S. crop. Of that, more than 80 percent come from Castroville, the self-proclaimed "artichoke center of the world."

Though artichokes are available in supermarkets year round, they peak in the spring (March-May) and again to a lesser degree in the fall (October-November).

Most artichokes for sale in the U.S. are globe artichokes, a conical-shaped variety with pointy leaves generally weighing about a pound. A newer variety, big heart, is similar in taste to a globe, has rounded leaves and weighs closer to 2 pounds. Just remember that the larger the artichoke, the longer the cooking time.

Look for artichokes with dark green leaves that are tight like a fist. Check for freshness by placing the artichoke in your hand — it should feel heavy for its size and should squeak when squeezed. If it feels spongy, then it's old. Sometimes the leaves will be streaked brown or white from frostbite or windburn. Though unattractive, the taste is unaffected. If the leaves are splayed, dried or pitted, though, move on to another artichoke.

Like most seasonal foods, artichokes can be pricey, from $1.50 to $4 each. However, they are often on sale in the spring. They are best when eaten within a day or two of purchase, although they can last up to five days unwashed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

So the next time you're in the supermarket and you see someone staring blankly at a pile of fresh artichokes, walk over and say, "Do you know how to eat those? I do."

Artichoke, Asparagus and Prosciutto Crostini

Artichoke, Asparagus and Prosciutto Crostini i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Artichoke, Asparagus and Prosciutto Crostini
Susan Russo for NPR

This appetizer celebrates the flavors of spring with sauteed fresh artichoke hearts and tender asparagus. With so few ingredients, the flavors truly stand out, so a trip to a local Italian deli for prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano is worthwhile.

Makes 4 servings

Crostini

2 artichokes, stems and leaves discarded

1 lemon

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

4 asparagus stalks, trimmed, cut in half, then sliced lengthwise (16 pieces total)

4 slices prosciutto, sliced in half

Several shavings Parmigiano-Reggiano

8 (1-ounce) toasted baguette slices

Vinaigrette

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoon aged balsamic vinegar

1 teaspoon lemon juice

A pinch of lemon zest (less than 1/4 teaspoon)

5 to 6 cranks freshly ground black pepper

Salt, to taste

To make the vinaigrette, whisk all ingredients in a small bowl and set aside.

For the crostini, fill a medium bowl with water and the juice of 1 lemon. Cut off the stem and rough base of the artichoke and the top two-thirds of the leaves. Snap off all of the remaining outer leaves. Using a small spoon, scrape out the fuzzy choke, until the cavity is smooth. Using a sharp knife, thinly slice the artichoke heart and place in the bowl of lemon water, which will prevent it from oxidizing, or turning brown. Repeat with second artichoke.

In a medium skillet over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Remove artichoke heart slices from the lemon water and pat dry. Add to the skillet and saute 2 to 3 minutes, or until slightly brown and crispy. Add the asparagus, and saute an additional 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Place 8 toasted bread slices on a platter, top each with a half a slice of prosciutto, 3 to 4 slices of artichoke hearts, 1 to 2 shavings of cheese, then two asparagus slices. Drizzle with vinaigrette and serve.

Creamy Artichoke Soup

Creamy Artichoke Soup i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Creamy Artichoke Soup
Susan Russo for NPR

This is one seriously silky and satisfying soup. Made from fresh artichokes hearts, it's nutty, earthy and rich. I recommend using the best ingredients possible — fresh rosemary for a full-bodied flavor, sweet-tart Meyer lemons, which are less acidic than regular lemons, and fruity extra-virgin olive oil. Dunking some crispy toasted bread in this soup is a given.

Makes 4 servings

4 globe artichokes, stems and leaves discarded

1 lemon

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon butter

1 leek (only the white bottom), thinly sliced

2 cups peeled, diced red potatoes

1 cup white mushrooms, thinly sliced

1/2 cup dry white wine

4 cups vegetable stock

2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, finely chopped

A few shakes of sea salt

10 cranks of fresh black pepper

1/2 cup half and half (or heavy cream)

1 teaspoon Meyer lemon juice (or regular lemon)

Salt and more fresh black pepper, to taste

2 ounces sliced prosciutto

Fill a medium bowl with water and the juice of 1 regular lemon. Cut off the stem and rough base of the artichoke and the top two-thirds of the leaves. Snap off all of the remaining outer leaves. Using a small spoon, scrape out the fuzzy choke. Using a sharp knife, thinly slice the artichoke heart and place in the bowl of lemon water. Repeat with remaining 3 artichokes.

In a large stockpot over medium heat, warm the olive oil and butter. Add the leek, potatoes, mushrooms and artichoke slices (after draining and patting dry). Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the white wine, and cook until it evaporates, 5 to 7 minutes. Add the vegetable stock, rosemary, salt and pepper, and stir until well combined. Raise the heat and bring to a boil. Cover partially and reduce to a simmer for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.

Working in batches, puree the soup until smooth. Return it the pot; stir in the half and half (or cream), Meyer lemon juice, salt and pepper. Keep soup warm over a low heat.

Meanwhile, in a medium-size dry skillet over medium heat, add 2 ounces of sliced prosciutto. Cook 30 to 60 seconds, or until just crisp. Remove from heat, and slice into small pieces.

Ladle the soup into 4 bowls. Top with1/4 of the crispy prosciutto, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, some freshly ground black pepper and a bit of finely chopped fresh rosemary. Serve immediately.

Italian Stuffed Artichokes

Italian Stuffed Artichokes i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Italian Stuffed Artichokes
Susan Russo for NPR

When I was growing up, there was nothing I loved more than my mom's stuffed artichokes. Her simple Italian bread, olive and cheese stuffing tastes even better after it sits, so feel free to make it a day ahead. Though time-intensive to make, stuffed artichokes are a gustatory delight. Each time you scrape a leaf, you get a luscious bite of warm, chewy, aromatic stuffing. Though you could stuff the center only, stuffing the leaves as well makes for a more impressive presentation and enjoyable eating experience. Keep in mind that you may need slightly more or less stuffing depending on the size of your artichokes and on the amount of stuffing you use in the leaves. Also, the larger the artichoke, the longer the cooking time.

Makes 2 artichokes

2 globe artichokes, about 1 pound each

1 lemon, cut in half (for rubbing the artichoke)

1 teaspoon plus1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1/2 loaf stale Italian bread, torn into small pieces

1/4 cup Kalamata olives, finely chopped

1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon fresh minced parsley

1 tablespoon fresh minced basil

1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1 tablespoon pine nuts

Salt, to taste

For the cooking pot

1 lemon, sliced (for cooking)

1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

To make the stuffing, cut stale bread into a few thick slices and moisten with warm water, just enough to soften but not soak it. If it's too wet, then squeeze it dry with your hands. Tear the bread into small pieces (about 1/2 inch), and place in a large bowl.

Meanwhile place an artichoke on a cutting board and cut off the stem. Using a sharp knife, remove the fibrous outer part of the stem and discard. Cut the remaining center of the stem into long, thin strips, then dice. Saute in a small skillet with 1 teaspoon olive oil until lightly browned. Add to the bowl of bread. Add 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, chopped olives, crushed red pepper flakes, parsley, basil and cheese and mix well.

To toast the pine nuts, place in a small dry skillet over medium heat for 1 to 2 minutes, or until golden brown. Shake the pan handle gently to ensure even toasting. Add to the bowl of bread and season generously with salt.

Mix the stuffing well with your hands, breaking up any large pieces of bread. If it seems too dry or crumbly, add a little more olive oil or water. If it's too moist, add a bit more bread. I usually taste it at this point and adjust the seasonings as necessary. (If making the stuffing ahead, then place in an air-tight container and store in the refrigerator up to 3 days).

To clean the artichokes, cut off about 1 inch from the top of the artichoke and discard. Using a pair of kitchen shears, trim off the tips of the remaining leaves, until they are straight across. Rub the leaves all over with a lemon half.

Using your thumbs, gently separate the leaves (the fresher the artichoke, the tighter the leaves). Pull out the purple-tipped, pointy leaves from the center and several surrounding yellow leaves until you reach the fuzzy choke. Using a small spoon, scoop out the fuzzy choke until the cavity is smooth. Then squeeze some lemon juice inside the cavity to keep it from oxidizing, or turning brown. Repeat with second artichoke.

To stuff the artichokes, begin by placing 2 to 3 tablespoonfuls of stuffing into the cavity of each artichoke to prevent the leaves from closing up over it. Then using your hands, fill each leaf with about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon of stuffing, starting at the outermost leaves and working your way toward the center. Try not to overstuff the leaves early on, in case you run out of stuffing by the time you get to the second artichoke. You can always go back and add more.

To cook the artichokes, use a large, deep saucepan and fill it with 3 inches of water. Add a whole sliced lemon and 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil to the water. Place stuffed artichokes in the pan close together so they remain upright. Drizzle each with one teaspoon of extra-virgin olive oil. Cover tightly with a lid and bring to a boil for 10 minutes. Then lower the heat to a simmer, keeping the pan partially covered, and cook for 40 to 60 minutes, or until leaves are tender.

To check for doneness, try pulling a leaf from the artichoke, it should come out easily. Too much tugging means it needs to cook more. You can also insert a long, thin knife into the center of the artichoke; it should easily go through to the heart. Lift the knife straight out so you don't cut the heart.

Transfer cooked artichokes to a large plate or shallow bowl and let cool for 5 minutes before eating. Artichokes can also be kept warm by loosely covering with foil and eating within 15 to 20 minutes.

Sausage-Stuffed Artichokes

Sausage-Stuffed Artichokes i i
Susan Russo for NPR
Sausage-Stuffed Artichokes
Susan Russo for NPR

Artichokes have an affinity for pork, including sausage, pancetta, bacon and prosciutto. This filling is made with hot Italian sausage that can be found at Italian delis and most major supermarkets. Olive oil-soaked sun-dried tomatoes and fragrant herbs make this otherwise humble filling shine. Remember, the larger the artichoke, the longer the cooking time.

Makes 2 artichokes

2 globe artichokes, about 1 pound each

1 lemon, cut in half (for rubbing the artichoke)

2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil

1 small shallot, diced (about 1/8 cup)

1/4 pound hot Italian sausage

1/4 cup oil-oiled soaked sun-dried tomatoes, patted dry and diced

1/2 cup breadcrumbs

1 tablespoon fresh minced parsley

1 tablespoon fresh minced basil

Salt, to taste

1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

For the cooking pot

1 lemon, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus 2 teaspoons

Place an artichoke on a cutting board and cut off the stem. Using a sharp knife, remove the fibrous outer part of the stem and discard. Cut the remaining center of the stem into long, thin strips, then dice. Place in a large skillet with 2 teaspoons olive oil over medium heat, for 2 to 3 minutes, or until lightly browned.

Meanwhile, remove sausage from its casing and break apart with your hands. Add to the skillet with the artichoke stems. Add shallots and cook, stirring occasionally, until sausage and shallots are lightly browned, 5 to 7 minutes.

Add the sun-dried tomatoes, and cook an additional 1 to 2 minutes. Add the breadcrumbs and cook 1to 2 minutes more, until the breadcrumbs are lightly toasted and the sausage is fully cooked. Add fresh herbs, and season generously with salt. Turn off the heat, and slowly stir in the cheese, so it will melt evenly. Place the filling in a bowl and set aside.

To clean the artichokes, cut off about 1 inch from the top of the artichoke and discard. Using a pair of kitchen shears, trim off the tips of the remaining leaves, until they are straight across. Rub the leaves all over with a lemon half.

Using your thumbs, gently separate the leaves (the fresher the artichoke, the tighter the leaves). Pull out the purple-tipped, pointy leaves from the center and several surrounding yellow leaves until you reach the fuzzy choke. Using a small spoon, scoop out the choke until the cavity is smooth. Then squeeze some lemon juice inside the cavity to keep it from oxidizing, or turning brown. Repeat with second artichoke.

To stuff the artichokes, fill each cavity with half of the sausage stuffing, gently patting it down with your hand. Some of the breadcrumbs will fall on the leaves, which is just fine.

To cook the artichokes, use a large, deep saucepan and fill it with 3 inches of water. Add a whole sliced lemon and 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil to the water. Place stuffed artichokes in the pan close together so they remain upright. Drizzle each with one teaspoon of extra-virgin olive oil. Cover tightly with a lid and bring to a boil for 10 minutes. Then lower the heat to a simmer, keeping the pan partially covered, and cook for 40 to 60 minutes, or until leaves are tender.

To check for doneness, try pulling a leaf from the artichoke. It should come out easily. Too much tugging means it needs to cook more. You can also insert a long, thin knife into the center of the artichoke; it should easily go through to the heart. Lift the knife straight out so you don't cut the heart.

Transfer cooked artichokes to a large plate or shallow bowl and let cool for 5 minutes before eating. Artichokes can also be kept warm by loosely covering with foil and eating within 15 to 20 minutes.

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