Globe artichokes are among the most beautiful of vegetables – witness their frequent appearance in still-life paintings. And for fineness of flavor and texture, they rank alongside that other luxury vegetable, asparagus.
Yet fresh artichokes are greatly underused in this country and many people are only acquainted with the inferior canned version, which is about as much like the real thing as canned asparagus is like fresh. Globe artichokes are in season now and well worth seeking out.
Besides their culinary virtues, they have health-food status, being low in kilojoules (about 90 kJ per 100 g) and a source of various vitamins and minerals.
At present, their cost is relatively low, though we recently saw some magnificently fat specimens for $4 each in New York’s Little Italy, where the Italian community knows how to appreciate them. They are said to have originated in Sicily and certainly they were developed into their modern form by Italian growers.
Botanically, globe artichokes are thistle buds. Choose tightly furled artichokes which are as fat as possible. They will keep for a few days in the fridge, lightly wrapped in plastic, and even better if their stems are in water. Before use, they should be soaked upside down in a sinkful of water to remove any dirt or insect residents.
Americans’ underuse of artichokes probably has a lot to do with lack of knowledge about how to deal with them and a vague idea that it is a complex matter with traps for the unwary.
The trap, of course, is the aptly-named choke, a hairy inedible portion lurking at the heart of the vegetable, at the centre of the leaves and on top of the succulent base. Provided you know not to try eating it, it’s no problem.
Another daunting factor is the instruction, given in so many recipe books, to snip off the top third of each leaf – fiddly and unnecessary (unless you chance across the spinella variety, which is cone-shaped and has a little thorn at the tip of each leaf).
When artichokes are served whole, plainly boiled and with a dipping sauce, as an entree, there is no need to trim the leaves at all. In fact, to do so dims their beauty as an object on the plate. The diner pulls away each leaf by the tip, dips the base in the sauce and draws the base of the leaf through the teeth to scrape off the meaty flesh there. Used leaves are piled to one side until all have been detached. Then it is just a matter of removing the choke with a spoon or knife, before enjoying the best part of all, the base. The whole process is a little ritual.
But many artichoke recipes are less reverent and are designed to let the diner eat the whole vegetable with no mucking about.
For these, it’s just a matter of slicing off the whole top of the vegetable, leaving between a half and two thirds. Discard a couple of layers of the tough outside leaves and tidy up the base (leave as much as you can). If the artichokes are to be halved or quartered, it is easy to see and remove the choke. If they are to be served whole, pull and cut out the innermost leaves and open out the centre so that you can scrape out the fibrous white choke with a teaspoon.
Cut surfaces of an artichoke blacken very quickly, so immediately rub them with a lemon and drop the artichoke pieces into water acidulated with lemon juice (or vinegar at a pinch) until you are ready to deal with them. Don’t cook them in aluminium or they will go black immediately.
Keywords: Information, Artichoke, American