Friday, October 21, 2005

Artful Artichokes

Wouldn’t it be nice to just be able to pick up a pencil and draw a pretty picture of whatever inspires you at the moment? Or to come rushing home from the arts-and-crafts store with a bright new selection of “colors” and set to work in a bright, north window?

Or maybe even better – to be able to get out a pen and draw feverishly in squared-off boxes to commit to a cartoon strip those pithy comments that come to mind (usually ten to fifteen minutes AFTER the perfect opportunity to say them has passed)? If I could draw (which, sadly, I can’t!), I would accompany this writing with step-by-step drawings.

Beautiful as artichokes are, they require a fair bit of instruction, not only as relates to their cooking, but also to their pre-cooking preparation and their eating as well. Like many complicated things though, they are well worth the effort!

Just like the people who eat them, artichokes come in various sizes. The small, “baby” size weighs only about 2 ounces each and are typically only an inch or so in length, tip to bottom. They grow at the base of the artichoke plant (which is a thistle like plant, though actually a member of the daisy family, whose “flower” buds are the artichokes). They are so tender and tiny that there is no fibrous (some, including the Ingredient Sleuth would say “stringy”) choke in the middle.

Moving upward, on the plant and in size, medium artichokes weigh in at 5 to 8 ounces each and come from the side branches. These are the artichokes that we will discuss, and refer to, as the “dippables”!

Large artichokes may weigh a pound or more, grow on the center stalk of the plant and are usually eaten stuffed – a bit tricky and tedious, prep-wise -- with a savory filling.

Buying tips:

- Compact and heavy for its size
- Leaves that are fleshy, thick, firm, tightly closed
- Stem end firm, no tiny holes which would indicate worm damage
- Spring artichokes soft green in color
- Fall and winter artichokes olive green, possibly bronze-tipped leaves
- Avoid blackened, wilted, bruised leaves
- Squeeze it! Plump and crisp leaves make a squeaky sound! (Beware the vegetable police during this step!)


- Refrigerate, in a plastic bag, 4 to 5 days maximum.
- Do not wash before storing; sprinkle a few drops of water into the bag, then close.

Preparation for the “dippables”:

- Wash under cold running water
- Cut off the top inch of the artichoke with a large, sharp knife
- Optionally: clip the sharp tips of the leaves with a kitchen shears
- Optionally: prevent darkening by rubbing the cut parts with lemon juice
- Cut off the stem flush with the base to create a flat surface
- Pull of any remaining short, coarse leaves from the bottom

Cooking of the “dippables”:

- Place artichokes on their flat bases, side by side, in a large, non-reactive pot in which water is already boiling (careful for splashes!), water depth about half that of the artichokes.
- Add a couple tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar to retain color and brighten flavor.
- Cover the pot and return the water to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low.
- Lift the lid a few times during cooking to help with color retention (this is an EASY instruction to follow for Type A personalities, take it from me!).
- Cooking time is 20 to 40 minutes, depending upon size. They are done when an inner leaf can be pulled out easily (with tongs, not tender fingertips!).
- Invert the artichokes in a colander so that the water drains from between the leaves.

Eating (AT LAST!) of the “dippables”:

- RELAX! Really! This is an important first step. Artichokes were not meant for gobbling! They are very rich, meant to be savored and deserve to be treated as, well – a TREAT! It doesn’t matter if they “cool off” and, in fact, slightly warm to room temperature is just right to detect the full flavors.
- There it is! A lovely, whole, glistening artichoke, on its plate, in front of you – and it’s ALL for you – the whole thing!
- Pull off a leaf and dip its fleshy base into your sauce of choice.
- Place the bottom half of the leaf, curved side down, in your mouth and draw it between your teeth so that you scrape off the tender flesh from the inside of the leaf.
- Optionally: say “Mmmm” quietly -- or shout it!
- Repeat this process for all those lovely, fleshy leaves. Maybe you’ll enjoy making an artistic little arrangement of the “used” leaves on your plate!
- When you get to the inner petals – these are thin (like flower petals), rose colored, and bunched to a point at the top – you can bite off the bases rather than scrape them through your teeth.
- Underneath the petals is the choke – that tuft of slender hay-colored fibers resembling cornsilk (but very, very, choke-y if they get into your mouth!!! Time to be careful, once again).
- Pull (or scrape) off all of the choke fibers to expose the artichoke bottom – it resembles the center of a daisy.
- The artichoke bottom is dense, creamy, velvety and – hooray – COMPLETELY edible. It can be cut into quarters and then dipped – aw, go ahead, let’s “bathe” not just “dip” these pieces! They are the true finale – the “big finish” -- of the artichoke experience!

Dipping Sauces to Try (just a few suggestions):

- Butter: the classic dip for artichokes
- Hollandaise sauce: you know the one, that rich egg-yolk-and-butter cooked sauce
- Plain oil-and-vinegar salad dressing
- Japanese-style sauce of soy sauce, lemon juice, garlic, ginger, dark sesame oil
- Plain yogurt flavored with garlic, lemon juice and prepared mustard
- Roasted red peppers pureed with a little extra-virgin olive oil
- Tomato sauce, fresh or cooked
- Roasted garlic cloves pureed with a little extra-virgin olive oil and lemon juice

Because the medium-sized, dippable, artichokes are such an event unto themselves, they are often served as a separate, first course. That way, they get the attention they deserve and their unique, subtle flavor is not camouflaged with other foods. And, undoubtedly, they alone are enough to keep even we two-fisted eaters completely engaged!

While it is slightly unfortunate that I could not draw instructional pictures – of course, artichokes aren’t really all that difficult after all, now are they – I still wish that I could grab hold of some trusty paints and sketch out a lovely artichoke still-life. With their dramatically sculpted shapes, they are individual masterpieces of design and structure -- truly artful subjects for a painting indeed.

Maybe if I painted quickly enough and the artichokes were still fresh when the painting was complete, I could then cook them up and eat them. Enjoy their wonderful flavors -- yet still see them in their integral beauty in the painting. Rather like “having your artichoke and eating it too,” I suppose!

Bon appetit!


bill & karen said...

We saw a huge field of artichokes when we were on a trip thru the Central California valley a couple of months ago. No roadside stand to buy any though so we had to wait till we got back to San Diego to buy some. Like your ideas for healthy dips too. We like melted butter with crushed garlic in it as our usual dipping sauce.

carolyn said...

California produces something like 95 percent of the world's artichokes so that's probably why we get such good ones at the market all the time. The more we eat them the more we like them!

susan said...

Really like your blog and now that you wrote about artichokes I had to leave a comment because they're my favorite! The baby size are hard to find but really fun to use in salads because there is no choke. Sometimes the Italian market near us has them.

kristi said...

The vegetable police is a great concept! Can't you just see them in their green unifroms in the supermarket? LOL from your writing as usual!

dennis said...

this is the best writeup I've ever seen on how to deal with artichokes...thx

Doug said...

Wow, timing IS everything! I tuned in to find a cute little piece on Mrs. Yu's cooking, only to find that it had disappeared when I refreshed the page looking for the picture to be posted. Glad I caught it :)

Marilyn said...

Wow! Talk about timing, indeed! As Doug said, the piece about the Chinese cookbook was posted, briefly, earlier this morning. Then, as does happen from time to time, technical difficulties arose in the posting of the accompanying photo. But, I'm pleased to report that, once again, WE'RE BACK! Good weekend wishes to all!

Ingredient Sleuth
Friday, October 28th