Artichokes

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Eating an artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is a war of attrition against a thistle, actually a cultivated, immature thistle flower, but a thistle nonetheless. There are artichokes, especially tiny ones, called carciofini in Italy, that can be eaten in their entirety, leaves and all. The famous flattened and deep-fried carciofini alia Giudea of the Roman ghetto are the leading example of this, and would be included here except that the requisite artichokes are almost never available away from the Mediterranean birthplace of the plant.

The globe (as opposed to the completely unrelated Jerusalem and Chinese artichokes*) artichokes most commonly served everywhere are fist-sized or larger and must be tackled leaf by leaf. At the base of each leaf is a soft half-moon of edible flesh torn from the fleshy base, or fond. Once you have worked your way through this palisade of bracts, you come to the hairy and inedible choke, which must be scraped away before the deliciously earthy and dense discoid bottom can be cut up, dipped in melted butter (if hot) or vinaigrette (if cold), and eaten with the pleasure that comes from enjoying a hard-won and thoroughly desirable prize.

*The Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is botanically a sunflower native to North America. Invasive with a capital I, it will choke other plants out of gardens. The edible part, a knobby tuber, has an appealing nutty flavor but did not inspire any great recipes until Michel Troisgros and Daniel Boulud created soups from it. The name is most plausibly a distortion of the Italian word for sunflower, girasole. The French name, topinambour, derives from the Amazonian people known as Tupinamba. This is a puzzle worth exploring, since the plant was introduced into France from Canada by Samuel Champlain (1567–1635), he of the great lake that divides New York from Vermont. The Chinese, or sometimes the Japanese, artichoke is also a tuber. Escoffier, who called it crosne du Japon, § advised treating it like a regular artichoke. I have never seen one.

†A process that inspired the Italian expression la politico del carciofo, a tactic of picking off your opponents one at a time.

‡Bracts are modified leaves associated with flowers, as for example the red, pink, or white “petals” of the poinsettia.

§After the French village near Corbeil, itself a center of flour milling and birthplace of the Homer scholar Jean-Baptiste d’Ansse de Villoison (1753–1805), whose last name means Gosling Town. Since his birthplace means basket, it is curiously fitting that his middle name means basket handle.

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