I always say that whoever was the first person to eat an artichoke had to be either very brave or very hungry. Because who would think this well-armored and beautiful thistle could be so deliciously edible. But artichokes are also like Cracker Jacks in that you have to work your way to the prize within.
First a bit of history and a nutrition lesson.
Artichokes first appeared in ancient Greek and Roman mythology with Zeus creating the plant out of a fickle mortal lover named Cynara. Thanks to some non-god who had the courage or curiosity to eat this unfriendly vegetable, artichokes first appeared in the cooking and medicine of ancient Greece, Italy, Sicily, and the Moors in North Africa. Catherine de Medici promoted them in France and early European immigrants brought them to North America. Today nearly 100 percent of the artichokes we find in our markets are grown in California where they are a celebrated crop (artichoke trivia: Marilyn Monroe was the first official California Artichoke Queen in 1949).
Artichokes are extremely high in nutrients and very low in calories. A medium one has only about 60 calories and it's packed with magnesium, potassium, folate, vitamin C, iron, and powerful antioxidants. They're particularly good for liver health and can also soothe digestion.
While it's possible to buy fresh artichokes year-round, their best growing season is spring-summer-fall. The ones in our markets are usually either very large, the size of two fists, or else about 3-inches long, called baby artichokes (they're simply smaller versions of the big ones, picked while growing further down the stalk).
Look for an even green color with as little brown coloration as possible. Try to choose ones with tighter leaves. As you pick one up, feel each to be firm and weighty. Finally, squeeze the artichoke and listen for a squeak. That's a good sign.
Here's the artichoke challenge: The fibrous outer leaves, while having a tender inner surface, are mostly inedible. No amount of cooking or steaming will make them fully digestible. The other factor is the inner thistle. An artichoke is a bud on its way to becoming a beautiful, but thorny, purple thistle flower. Once the artichoke grows past the "baby" stage, its inner core begins to develop a hoary thistle. When you're trimming a medium to large artichoke to get access to the tender heart, you have to work inwards to find and remove that fuzzy center (it sits right on top of the artichoke heart, the prize for all your effort).
When trimming an artichoke you're aiming at one of two results: One, to trim the outside of the artichoke so that it can be steamed or fried whole. I've provided a link to Elise Bauer's wonderful food blog, "Simply Recipes," that clearly demonstrates, with photos, how to do this.
The other result is to trim the bud down to the tender heart that can then be steamed, fried, or cooked whole or in pieces (sliced or quartered) and added to a salad or cooked recipe.
The exception to all this is baby artichokes which are far more tender than full-grown ones. This means that with just a little trimming and cleaning and removing a few outer leaves, the entire bud can be sliced or shredded, eaten raw or cooked.
Artichokes turn brown when exposed to air so before you cut, prepare a large bowl of cool water, big enough to take your finished pieces. Cut a whole lemon in half, squeeze the juice into the water, adding the juiced lemon halves into the water. As soon as you have a finished, trimmed artichoke, place it in the water until you're ready to cook it.
Tip: My absolute best advice to help you trim an artichoke is to not try and do it all with just a chef's knife. Even a very sharp chef's knife. Instead use the combination of kitchen scissors, a melon baller, and your serrated bread knife. The scissors are best for snipping off the prickly tops of the outer leaves. The melon baller helps to remove the unedible furry choke. The serrated knife brilliantly cuts through the thick, coarse outer skin and will quickly get you to the tender, inner parts.
There are scores of recipes for artichokes and they fall into two categories: artichokes eaten whole and artichokes trimmed to their inner heart that is then combined with other ingredients. Here are examples:
- Steamed whole. Served with melted butter or aioli (a garlic mayonnaise), or hollandaise.
- Deep fried whole. This is a specialty of Jewish-Roman cuisine; a challenge for a small city kitchen so proceed cautiously.
- Steamed whole and stuffed with a mixture of breadcrumbs, grated Parmesan and parsley.
- Trimmed to the heart and cut into pieces that are fried, marinated, or served raw.
- Trimmed to the heart and cut into pieces cooked with baked fish, placed in a bulgar wheat or farro salad, tossed with pasta, served with scrambled eggs, or scattered on the top of a pizza.
- Trimmed, cut, cooked and used in a dip with ingredients like Parmesan or mayonnaise.
- Trimmed to the heart which is left whole and used as the foundation for an au gratin, pieces of cooked ham or shrimp, or sautéed vegetables like mushrooms.
Artichokes are among the only foods for which there's essentially no companionable wine. An enzyme gives artichokes a slightly sweet, lingering flavor that collides with any acid. So if artichokes are on your menu, choose your wine carefully, or else keep the dish in a first course and skip the wine until the entrée.