A Perfect Artichoke

Artichokes are one of my favorite vegetables – okay, all vegetables, save eggplant, are my favorite vegetables, which is a handy quality for a vegetarian, but artichokes are a special favorite. They’re coming into season now – there will be many more available around the country (from California) in a month or so, but at least in California, they’re widely distributed now.

On your way into Monterey, the last few miles before you can see the water, there are rolling artichoke fields to the left, silvery, spidery plants that seem in motion, creeping and starting over the crests and turning into the hollows.

I know I was offered artichokes as a child – I can remember pulling the flesh off a leaf between my teeth, probably on the cusp of a dinner party that took place after my bedtime – but I was never a fan of mayonnaise or melted butter, the traditional accompaniments. I am certain that the flavor of the artichoke alone didn’t appeal to me as a special treat.

I had very Spartan tastes as a kid: no butter on my baked potato, bread, toast or pancakes; no mayonnaise on anything. No butter, even, on broccoli, my favorite vegetable, another with a stem. Artichoke stems are even better than broccoli stems; don’t cut them off. Have a cardoon, too, if you can find one, which you sometimes can in California around the turn of the year – that’s the ultimate artichoke stem.

My father remembers that his mother cooked artichokes – he wasn’t sure whether to place his first experience with them in Argentina or Brazil, but he remembered mayonnaise being involved.

I still don’t tangle with mayonnaise in conjunction with artichokes at home. I’ll use a little good-quality bottled dressing if a plain artichoke doesn’t feel like enough of a treat. Out, I’ve had a number of red pepper and other remoulades that have been quite good.

If there is an artichoke on the menu, I will invariably order it. In Vegas last weekend I had fried artichoke hearts. They were beautifully done – pan-turned until golden and slightly crisp, with ribbons of Parmigiano-Reggiano, remoulade and a sliver of lemon.

On my trip out to New Jersey a couple weeks ago, I had one grilled and stuffed with breadcrumbs. The breadcrumbs were forgettable, but having laid the artichoke on the grill did something magical just this side of burning to it. Some of the outside leaves were deeply browned and incredibly flavorful.

Now, this is purely a discussion of whole artichokes, not artichoke hearts – when we get to that perhaps I’ll dig up that invented appetizer Debbie and I did for Elizabeth’s going-away party – half artichoke hearts filled with romesco and run under the broiler.

To cook artichokes to perfection, here’s what to do.

First, set a large pot of water to boil. One you can fit in a saucepan. For two artichokes you’ll need a stockpot.

There are not many vegetables I boil, but this is one. I do feel sufficiently guilty for throwing out the water afterwards, don’t worry. I hereby absolve any followers of any guilty feelings they might experience from boiling an artichoke.

While the water works on coming to a boil, start by washing the artichoke as well as you can for a closed thistle. I usually force the top leaves open slightly and try to jam the thing on the faucet, hoping to drive out any beautiful black Castroville dirt that might be hiding in there.

Cut the cruddy-looking bottom of the stem, but not the stem itself, off the artichoke. Peel the stem lightly. Using a good paring knife and setting the choke head down on the cutting board is probably the easiest way to go at this. A few leaves may come off in this process; no matter, you would probably have pulled them off anyhow. If you have any wilted or badly split leaves around the outside of the choke, remove them now.

Do not worry about purplish leaves – those darkened tips are the result of cold temperatures and aren’t a problem. This year there haven’t been any frost-kissed artichokes so far – a warm winter out west is the reason.

I don’t bother lopping the top off the choke – more to hold onto when you’re eating, I figure, and it eliminates having to try to remember what type of metal your knife is, what type of metal is the problem, and to instantly rub everything in sight vigorously with a lemon as soon as you cut the thing in order to prevent discoloration.

Is that water boiling yet? If so, salt it – salt it seriously – and then taste it. You want it to be almost too salty to be used for soup in order to get the artichoke sufficiently seasoned. Add a good slug of olive oil – a tablespoon or so for two chokes. Plunk them in as well. Cover.

If you like, at this point you can add the juice of a lemon and its zest and/or a bay leaf to the water. Gilding the lily? You decide.

Turn the heat down to a simmer and cook the artichoke for 20 minutes, then turn it over (tongs) and cook for another 20 minutes. Check it at the end of 40 minutes for doneness. Remember that it is a very dense vegetable, and the inside will take longer to become tender. I generally cook artichokes for about 50 minutes. A leaf will come off easily and almost all of the flesh will scrape off without effort. Try pulling a leaf from further into the choke to check if you can – if you find that it looks white and waxy and the flesh will not pull, cook it longer.

When the artichokes are done, remove them from the water with tongs (tongs allow you to aim them head down and squeeze a little to get the water inside out) and place head down in a bowl to drain still further. Allow to cool somewhat.

Artichokes can be served warm or cold, but they don’t taste like much when steaming hot, and they’ll do nothing but frustrate you. You’ll think the thing is cooling, but as you remove layer upon layer of leaves, you’ll find that they’re a fine insulator, and the last row of leaves will burn your palate nearly as effectively as the first.

Dip leaves in melted butter, mayonnaise, or good-quality dressing if desired. If not, feel virtuous – even though you likely added a slug of olive oil to the water, an average artichoke has only about 80 calories – and it takes you about 20 minutes to ingest them.

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