Tiny artichokes simmered in white wine, rosemary, thyme, and other aromatics, à la provençale; artichoke slices bathed in garlicky lemon oil and grill-seared, Barcelona style; tender hearts stewed with lamb and sweet spices in a Moroccan tagine; artichokes plumped with dill-scented rice, Turkish fashion; wedges braised with leeks and mint, à la grecque; and whole flattened miniatures, their flower-like forms fried leafy brown and dusted with coarse salt, alia giudia (Italian Jewish style).
Then there are raw artichokes: bittersweet crescent cuts in vinaigrette with croutons, walnuts, tomatoes, mint, and parsley, in fresh California style. But the enjoyment of raw artichoke is no modern invention. Giacomo Castelvetro, gardener to Lucy Countess of Bedford, explained to her in 1614 that “we eat them raw or cooked. When . . . about the size of a walnut they are good raw, with just salt, pepper, and some mature cheese to bring out the flavour” (The Fruit, Herbs & Vegetables of Italy, translated by Gillian Riley).
In 1699, the English memoirist John Evelyn wrote of “artichaux” in Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, “In Italy they sometimes broil them, and as the Scaly Leaves open, baste them with fresh and sweet Oyl [and] they eat them with the Juice of Orange and Sugar.”
So how has it come to pass that in the United States we cling to big boiled artichokes, that the beautiful bud is—as often as not—large and sodden, little more than a butter holder? The large artichokes we cultivate in the United States are virtually all the Green Globe variety, descended from rootstock planted by Italian immigrants at the end of the 19th century (Italy is known as home to the plant, but it is likely that it was developed in North Africa—from the cardoon.) While visually striking (a bouquet of artichokes makes a fabulous centerpiece), these are not the tender eat-it-all buds of the Mediterranean, which have few prickles and little to no chokes and cook quickly enough to be bought on a whim for a work-night dinner.
But we are beginning to modify our “big is beautiful” philosophy If we do not yet grow the gamut of varieties that enlivens the tables of Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and North Africa, we can at least find “babies” grown in North America’s artichoke belt, a swath of the central California coast with headquarters in Castroville.
My goal here is to remind readers about artichoke “parts” and small artichokes, to urge them to experiment with techniques for preparing and cooking (and not cooking) them, and to encourage growers to plant multiple varieties, as is done in other artichoke-growing countries. It’s time we caught up with the Old World.
Preliminary cleaning: Rap artichoke forcefully against work surface to open up “petals.” Soak in lukewarm water while you prepare other ingredients, then rinse well. (Most artichokes are sprayed with pesticides throughout the growing cycle.)
Stem sense: The stem is a continuation of the artichoke bottom (or crown, or fond in French) and can be equally choice—so do not remove it automatically. To check, pare until you reach the stem’s pale core: taste. If very bitter, remove. If not, peel and keep intact or slice for sautés or stuffing.
To remove stem: Lay artichoke on its side and hold it with one hand. With the heel of the other hand, forcefully press down on the stem to break it off. Some stems resist and must be cut. Pare base.
To prepare artichokes to serve whole: Bend down and snap off dark bracts, stopping when you reach a paler green layer. With a stainless steel knife, slice across cone tip where it turns light. With scissors, cut off the prickly tip of each exposed bract. Cook at this point (remove choke at table) or clean further, as follows.
To remove choke: Rap trimmed artichoke top hard against work surface to open it wide, then open further with fingers. With melon ball cutter or grapefruit spoon, scoop out choke and prickly parts.
To prepare hearts from medium-to-large artichokes: Bend down and snap off bracts until you reach the tender yellow-green core. Slice off most of remaining cone tip. (Any tender yellow “petals” that remain can be cut into fine strips and added to the dish.) Pare stem, if desired; or snap it off and trim base. This is now an artichoke heart. For most dishes, cut quarters, sixths, or eights, as size dictates; then, cutting each wedge from its pointed toward its wide end, slice out choke. Cook as is, or slice smaller.
To prepare hearts from small artichokes: Snap off bracts until you reach the paler interior. Trim stem, if needed. Halve artichoke lengthwise. Remove prickly purple leaves; small chokes are edible.
To prepare crowns (bottoms) from medium-to-large artichokes: Proceed as for hearts, but slice off entire cone and break off stem, leaving only rounded artichoke bottom. Reserve tender yellow bracts to cook with crowns. Scrape out choke with melon ball cutter or grapefruit spoon. Leave crowns whole, or cut up to suit recipe. (Alternatively, cook whole artichokes, then gently lift off cone, pull out choke, and trim resulting crown.)
About discoloration: Artichokes discolor—dramatically but normally. To lessen darkening as you work, keep them in water acidified with lemon juice. If tartness is not desirable, plain water does a fair job of preventing browning (although water browns). Carbon steel knives and aluminum or cast-iron cookware will also discolor artichokes.
No matter how they’re treated beforehand, most artichokes cook to similar taupe tones—with one striking exception: Every now and then, one will turn an alarming turquoise, quite unlike any other natural food color. Granville Perkins, retired general manager of Artichoke Industries, a processing company in Castroville, explains: “When water is unusually alkaline (hard), artichokes, like litmus paper, will change color. But they have no harmful effects. However, water-soluble vitamins are lost, so it is best to add some acid to all cooking water, both for color and vitamin retention.”
To prepare crowns of uniform color: When paleness is desired, precook or cook crowns in the traditional French way, à blanc: In a non-aluminum saucepan whisk together 3 to 4tablespoons flour with a little water. Gradually add about 2 quarts more water, the juice of a lemon, a drop of oil, and a little salt. Bring to a boil, then add artichoke bottoms and cook to desired stage of doneness.