Conquering the Artichoke
While my pantry is always stocked with a jar of brined artichoke hearts (they’re one of my favorite ingredients for a frittata or to toss into pasta with parmesean cheese, sauteed mushrooms and garlic), I must confess that until recently, I’ve been intimidated by the prospect of buying raw artichokes and preparing them from scratch. Between their price and my perception of their labor-intensiveness, fresh artichokes have somehow always seemed to be too ‘precious’ to deal with. Echoing this sentiment, Mark Bittman has thoughtfully likened the artichoke to a lobster (another seemingly precious and labor intensive food) in two ways: First, both are foods with such challenging exteriors, it’s a miracle that humans ever figured out they could be eaten. Second, he claims that both taste so divine simply steamed and served with melted butter that one can forget all of the other wonderful possibilities for preparing them.
After having visited the South of France last summer, where the artichaut bounty spoiled me silly–from artichoke tapenades to spread on baguettes (or, in my case, gluten-free rice crackers brought from home) to stuffed artichokes, my internal artichoke monster has permanently been awaken, and it’s not content to limit its appetite to artichokes of the jarred variety alone. Must. Eat. Artichoke.
And so, now that artichoke season is officially underway, I’ve decided it’s time to get beneath that spiny coat of green armor and conquer the raw artichoke, once and for all.
Spring is Artichoke Season
The vast majority of artichokes in America are grown in Castroville, California, where this thistle-family flower is in season all year round. For the sorry lot of us non-Left Coasters, the best artichokes are available starting around March, through May. The “choke” in “artichoke” actually refers to a hairy section deep in the inner sanctum of of the artichoke, just above the heart (see the section below on how, precisely, to access this inner sanctum). Since they’re not edible, many recipes will have you cut it out somehow before cooking (or eating). Baby artichokes, however, do not have a fuzzy choke, and can therefore be eaten in their entirety (once you trim them). While you’re most likely to encounter large, “Green Globe” artichokes (this variety accounts for almost all artichokes grown in the US, and it’s illegal to import fresh artichokes from other countries), if you happen upon Baby Artichokes, grab them up. They require relatively little prep work, as evidenced in this stunningly simple preparation for Sauteed Baby Artichokes from Martha Stewart.
Choosing and Prepping Your Choke (Artichokes 101)
According to my trusty, rusty Field Guide to Produce, you should choose artichokes that have “tightly-packed crisp leaves with bright coloring,” and avoid artichokes whose leaves are spread apart, wilting or drying out. It also suggests that you can check the cut end as an indication of freshness: a black cut tells you its been stored for too long. Note that artichoke leaves are called “bracts,” and each bract has a tiny little thorn on its tip, hence the need to trim them down before cooking. To store your purchased artichokes, place them in a plastic bag and refrigerate for up to a week.
If you’re planning to bake or grill your artichoke, you’ll need to prep it more extensively than if you were going to steam or boil it. I schooled myself on the art of doing so with the help of the very clear, step-by-step video tutorial below (apologies in advance for the 20-second commercial you’ll be subjected to, but education ‘aint always free):
Pay close attention to the part about dousing your cut artichoke in lemon juice; they brown super-quickly once cut.
To bake your ‘choke: just lube up your halved artichoke all over with some olive oil, lemon juice, sea salt and pepper (minced garlic is a great pairing, too), place in an oiled baking dish cut side down, cover with foil, and bake it at 350 degrees until nice and tender (anywhere from 30-50 minutes, depending on its size.) Note the outermost bracts will be pretty tough and inedible, but the inside ones will be tender and you can eat about the bottom half of each in its entirety. And the hearts and the immediately adjacent stem stump are soft and yummy.)
To steam your ‘choke: this method eliminates a lot of the prep work outlined in the video; you need not halve the artichoke and cut out the inner choke before cooking. Rather, you’ll just trim the outer leaves, cut off the stem and lop off the top quarter of the entire artichoke to give it a flat top with a pretty rosette pattern. Steamed artichokes are traditionally eaten leaf-by-leaf, salted and dipped in melted butter, with the fleshy bottom part of the leaf scraped off with your front teeth and the fibrous remainder cast aside for the compost heap. They are finished off with a thumb-wrestling bout for claim to the prized heart when you arrive at it, of course. To do penance for all of the buttery, flourless sweets I pushed on you last week, I’d recommend swapping out the butter for a flavorful and lower-fat dip, as in this recipe for Steamed Artichokes with Vinaigrette Dipping Sauce.
If you prefer to boil your ‘choke: just prep them the same way as if you were steaming them, drop them in a pot with enough water to cover them, cover pot, and boil for anywhere from 20-45 minutes (depending on size). Your artichoke is ready when the outermost bottom bracts detach easily.
While I think there are many healthier and equally delicious ways to enjoy artichoke, it’s worth mentioning that deep frying artichokes is a very popular way to prepare them. In fact, Jewish-style artichokes (carciofi alla giudia) involve deep-frying de-choked artichokes in olive oil, and serving them simply salted. This prep method is different from carcioffi fritti (fried artichoke) you’ll commonly find served as antipasto at Italian restaurants, the latter of which is dredged in flour before deep frying, and is therefore not gluten-free.
For more creative ways to prepare artichokes, (Artichokes 202), the New York Times offers a clearinghouse of recipes contributed over the years from passionate food columnists waxing poetic about this oddly captivating thistle. The one for Artichokes with Fava Beans is especially springy, appealing and worth checking out.
Nutritionally Worth the Effort
According to the USDA, the edible portion of a boiled, medium-sized globe artichoke (which is only about 40% of its total weight) has 64 calories, 14g of carbohydrate–of which an enormous 10g (!!) is fiber (so, a net of 4g of carbohydrate) and 3.5g of protein. It also contains about 25% of the daily value for folate, an important B-vitamin needed for heart health and new cell growth (especially iron-transporting red blood cells), and an especially key nutrient for pregnant women. Considering that the average American only gets about 12-13g of fiber per day (one third to one half of the recommended intake), snacking on a single artichoke before dinner could make a significant contribution to your fiber tally with adding negligible calories to the meal. As a reward for your perseverance, Artichokes contain a natural compound called “cynarin” that will make foods eaten after it taste sweet, rendering artichokes the perfect appetizer to serve before a meal you accidentally screwed up.
For that nutty artichokey taste, the blessing of sweetification it bestows on other foods, 10g of fiber and all of that folate, snipping away a few thorns and digging out a fuzzy choke doesn’t seem like such an effort, now does it?Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.