My relationship with artichokes has always been fraught with misunderstanding, suspicion, and frustration. Until now. As a new convert, I’ll tell anyone who’s willing to listen that this is the tastiest, and most rewarding appetizer you can hope to offer your family or your guests.
The artichokes of my childhood were thrown into boiling water whole (stem and all), until they would turn an unsavory gray. Despite sitting in the strainer to drain and cool down, they would be still oozing water by the time they would be put on the table with a bowl of vinaigrette. Then, the hard work would begin: discarding the outer bracts, hard as leather and prickly as thorns, tearing off edible leaves and laboriously scraping the flesh off them through the firm grip of my clenched teeth. After the brief reward of the small, soft, and tasty inner leaves, I knew to watch out for the crown of thorns that defended the thistle. Discarding it with a spoon was a delicate business, as the name of the game was to fully remove this stack of small needles without damaging the ultimate, delicious prize of the whole endeavor: the artichoke’s heart. In the end, I would be left with a big pile a compostable waste in my plate, and not much in terms of satiety or satisfaction to justify the whole affair.
As an adult, I never truly attempted to give my failed relationship with artichokes a second chance. I would sometimes order it in a restaurant, and typically feel validated in my poor opinion of this useless vegetable that no fancy preparation could seemingly save from its prickly stinginess. True, artichoke heart is delicious but if I ever have a craving for it, I reasoned, I could always head for the frozen section at the supermarket and get it by the dozen, prepped and thistle-less (which I never did). Other than that, I would typically admire the lore on display at the farmers’ market (these unlikely flowers are so attractive in their oddity!) and keep a respectful distance. Too bad, I would tell myself, to live within a stone’s throw from the World Capital of the Artichoke and let this local crop go to waste.
But like I said, I am a reformed artichoke-doubter. This week, I was given the opportunity to enjoy a simple dish that turned my whole perception of the artichoke on its head. My cordon-bleu-of-a-host’s mother was visiting and contributed to the meal with a favorite of hers: a recipe borrowed years ago from a restaurant in Italy. The artichoke was presented in the plate like a hollow bowl fully dressed with parsley and a balsamic vinaigrette. Pure and simple. It looked so lovely that I gamely went for it the best way I knew how: tearing off leaves to scrape flesh off them. That’s when it happened: the meaty texture simply melted in my mouth. There was nothing to discard–with the exceptions of two or three bites that left me with only a small remain of fibers. The sweetness of the balsamic vinaigrette was enhanced by the unique taste of the artichoke (interestingly, this edible thistle relative contains cynarin, a substance that stimulates the taste buds responsible for detecting sweet flavors). The whole vegetable was suddenly offering itself up from the very first bite. The heart still remained an anticipated promise, but no longer a hard-fought for reward. The joy, truly, could now be found in the journey there.
Spring is the best season for artichokes–although they tend to be available all year round. I hope that you will take advantage of it and enjoy this simple recipe that is responsible for my change of heart:
1/ Remove the stem and the hardest outer leaves.
2/ Trim generously by cutting off the top third or half of the artichoke as well as all the remaining leaves’ tips.
3/ Dig inside with a spoon and remove the thistle and its crown of small prickly leaves.
4/ Boil for 15 minutes.
5/ Drain and dress with a balsamic vinaigrette.
P.S. Naturally, you can use this as a base recipe and enhance it by stuffing the artichoke with any concoction of your choosing. The possibilities are endless!