Canned and Frozen Artichokes 101
As this mean winter staggers to an end, it may be heresy to be writing about the canned version of a famously spring ingredient. But canned and frozen artichokes are a year-round pantry staple. Yes, I love fresh artichokes but they can be expensive to buy and laborious to trim and cook.
The Challenges of Fresh Artichokes
Before turning to canned and frozen artichokes, let's consider fresh ones.
I often say that whomever was the first person to eat a fresh artichoke had to be either very brave or very hungry. That’s because an artichoke, which is the bud of a thistle plant, is like a food wearing a coat of armor. There are restaurants, especially in Rome, where a deep fryer and very, very hot oil can turn an entire bud into a golden brown potato chip-like delicacy. And at times we love to eat a whole one dressed with seasoned breadcrumbs and baked so to be eaten leaf by leaf. But usually when we eat artichokes we're eating the tender hearts.
The easiest way to trim a fresh artichoke and reach the heart is with a serrated knife. Holding the choke in one hand, use the other to wield the knife in a sawing motion to remove all the coarse, outer leaves and peel. Continue past any fleshy leaves. Deep inside, beneath a prickly and inedible thistle that must also be removed, you'll find the heart -- that is, if the artichoke wasn't picked too soon, before the heart was allowed to fully develop.
As you trim artichokes, keep ready a bowl of cool water to which you've added a squeeze of lemon juice. Because artichokes contain phenolics, a natural compound found in some foods, they discolor when cut and exposed to air (the same thing can happen with celery root). Parking trimmed artichokes in the acidulated water until you're ready to cook them will keep them from darkening.
So fresh artichokes are lots of work. That's what makes canned and frozen ones excellent alternatives and in many recipes you can't tell the difference.
Out Of a Box or a Can
A 9 oz. box of Birds Eye frozen hearts can easily cost more than $4.00. Trader Joe's sells them by the 12 oz. bag for almost half that price, likewise Whole Foods which also sells 12 oz. bags of frozen hearts. Key to using frozen hearts in most recipes is that they must be defrosted and drained of any excess moisture in advance or otherwise you risk adding excess water to what you're cooking. Patting fully defrosted hearts with a paper towel, and giving each a gentle squeeze, will help.
Canned artichokes, usually a better value than the frozen, are packed in water, salt, and citric acid (this keeps them from discoloring). A 14 oz. can will usually cost about $3.00 in New York and brands like Goya, Roland, and Trader Joe's all import or produce them. Some brands also sell artichoke bottoms -- although they're harder to find than the hearts in most stores. The bottoms are meatier and can be a better choice if you're going to dice them or use them as the base to hold a filling like crab meat or shrimp. Canned artichoke hearts, as with any canned vegetable, should be gently rinsed with cool water to remove excess salt, and then left to drain completely, squeezing out any excess liquid with a paper towel.
Once defrosted, frozen artichoke hearts have nearly the same texture as the canned but both are softer and more likely to fall apart than a fresh artichoke heart, even one that has been cooked. This can affect the texture of the recipe to which you add them. For example, if you're making pizza and add artichokes on top, they will already be soft and loose even before you put the pizza into the oven.
Marinated artichoke hearts are a whole other kind of ingredient. Whether bought in a jar or from an Italian deli, artichokes that have been roasted and dressed with seasoned oil, or oil and vinegar, tend to be firmer and also have a tangier flavor due to the marinade. Keep this in mind when adding these to a dish because you'll be adding more than just artichoke flavor. If it's the first time you're cooking with marinated hearts, taste one before adding it to your dish so you know how the flavor will be affected.
A final point about artichokes' flavor. Regardless if fresh, canned, frozen, or marinated, artichokes have a chemical characteristic that causes our taste receptors to have an unfriendly reaction to wine. Harold McGee in his On Food and Cooking explains in complex detail why this happens, but suffice it to know that a sip of wine after a bite of artichoke is not a good pairing so save your good wine for the next course.
Recipes Using Canned and Frozen Artichokes
One of the most popular uses for canned artichokes is a warm dip, usually made with grated Parmesan and mayonnaise. A search of a populist recipe website like AllRecipes.com has about 60 versions, including some with spinach, some with pickled jalpeños, and still others with feta.
But mostly artichokes are added to recipes to add low calorie tangy flavor. Here are a few to consider.
- Slow Cooker Tomato and Artichoke Soup, made with frozen artichoke hearts and completely non-fat. See our recipe adapted from a recent recipe in Ladies Home Journal.
- Pasta With Shrimp and Artichokes. With a well-stocked pantry, including a bag of shrimp in the freezer and cans of both tomatoes and artichoke hearts on the shelf, this dish makes an easy and satisfying weekday dinner. See our recipe.
- Orzo With Artichokes, Cherry Tomatoes and Pine Nuts. Tiny orzo, a rice-shaped pasta, paired with artichokes is a classic Greek combination. With its tangy lemon flavor, see our recipe which is a perfect partner to roast leg of lamb and also to bring to work for lunch.
- Instead of pasta, use whole grain bulgur with a cup of marinated artichoke hearts to make a hearty salad from Food & Wine. See the link below for the recipe for Bulgur With Tangy Artichokes.
- Artichoke and Parmesan Risotto. Drained canned artichoke hearts will add complexity to simple baked fish or chicken, cut into quarters and scattered on top of a home-made pizza, added to stews and tagines as a way of adding tangy flavor, or as a featured ingredient in this risotto.
So as spring arrives and the first rush of vegetables start showing up in our markets, by all means enjoy fresh artichokes. But keep in mind that there's an easy way to have this versatile and unexpected vegetable in our kitchens all year round.