Artichokes are one of the foods that make me wonder about the brave soul who first decided to try and eat one. First of all, their leaves, when raw, are bitter. If you have ever handled a raw artichoke and then touched something else that you then ate, or somehow managed to lick a finger that had touched the raw artichoke leaves, you know that they are bitter. As a member of the thistle family, some varieties have sharp little thorns on the tip of each leaf. After encountering the prickly, bitter exterior, I don't think I would have tried to find out what was inside, even on the off chance that it might be edible. I'm so glad that someone served me a cooked artichoke before I learned how much work is involved to get to the edible prize at the center.
This is of course the problem with preparing fresh artichokes: you have to want to eat it badly enough to work for it. (Isn't this true of just about anything worth having? There are probably lots of metaphors about life, love and work to be found in the process of paring the artichoke down to its heart....) I have occasionally tried to teach how to trim and cook fresh artichokes in my cooking classes, but have mostly given up. You can tell that it wears a lot of people out just to see the work involved. After demonstrating the "turning" of an artichoke, someone almost always asks if they can just use canned or frozen. A blog is a great place for me to teach the process, because those who want to know how to prepare a fresh artichoke can seek the information out, and those who would rather use canned or frozen will not have to sit through a demonstration. I suppose canned or frozen are OK for some uses, but they really can't hold a candle to the fresh.
Artichokes are in season right now. They begin to arrive in our markets here in the Midwest in early March--a little bit ahead of the first asparagus. Those early ones are generally the best. They are young and tender and thus easier to work with than the ones we see as the season progresses. When choosing an artichoke, pick one up. It should be heavy for its size. It shouldn't feel dry and rubbery. The stems should look like they were cut recently. If you squeeze it, they leaves should make a slight squeaking sound as they rub together.
I prefer to prepare artichokes by "turning" them. This involves trimming away all of the dark leaves and the furry inner "choke" so that everything that is left is edible. The term turning refers to the fact that you are continually rotating the artichoke as you pull away the leaves and trim away the tough exterior with your paring knife. Turned artichokes can be served in many interesting and delicious ways and, as a bonus, there isn't an unsightly mountain of artichoke detritus on the dinner table after you have eaten them. This is the biggest problem with steaming or poaching them whole (the way that fresh ones are most commonly prepared at home)—in order to eat them they have to be pulled apart by the diner at the table.
Before I describe the turning process, I should define some terms: The choke of the artichoke is the furry, sometimes thorny, central core. There are two names for the edible portion of the artichoke—the heart and the bottom. The bottom is the term used to refer to the edible portion of a large or mature artichoke—it includes the cupped base of the artichoke, some of the stem, and if tender, some of the inner leaves. The heart is the central edible portion of a baby artichoke—it includes the bottom, undeveloped choke and the inner tender leaves. I am going to be talking exclusively about how to turn a large artichoke down to the edible bottom. (Although the process for turning a baby artichoke down to the heart is similar.) I am right handed, so I will describe how to turn an artichoke if you are right handed. Just substitute right for left and vice verse as you read the description, if you are left handed.
Before you begin, squeeze some lemon juice into a bowl. You may add some olive oil and/or water to the lemon juice if you like, but this is not strictly necessary. Artichokes oxidize almost immediately, so they need to be rubbed with lemon juice, or immersed in a mixture of lemon juice and water, or a mixture of lemon juice and olive oil, as soon as they are turned. Use a stainless steel knife to cut the artichoke. A carbon steel knife will react with the artichoke and turn it black. Finally, have a plastic bag, a compost bucket or some sort of trash receptacle handy since you will be producing a large amount of garbage—you want to keep your work table as neat as possible.
Begin by placing the artichoke on the cutting board with the stem sticking out over the edge of the counter. Hold the artichoke with your left hand firmly against the cutting board. Grab the stem with your right hand, and using downward pressure, break the stem off of the artichoke. Some chefs will tell you to simply trim the stem to a certain length. This is fine if you live in California and have perfectly young and fresh artichokes. But most of us do not live in artichoke country and by the time we get artichokes they have been stored for a while and are beginning to toughen and get stringy (or it might be that they were harvested a little late to begin with and have overdeveloped strings running through the stem). Breaking the stem off will pull some of these tough, inedible strings out and away from the bottom. Below is a picture of the stem where it was attached to the bottom after breaking it off of the artichoke. You can see the tough strings:
Next, beginning with the lower leaves, one by one, bend the leaves out and away from the artichoke and snap them off. Be careful to bend and break the leaves about a quarter to a half inch of the way up from where they are attached to the artichoke. If you pull the entire leaf off, you will be throwing away some of the meat of the artichoke that is at the base of each leaf.
Continue to break the leaves off until you can see leaves that are pale yellow about half way up:
Cut across the artichoke at the point where the leaves begin to turn pale. This will be about an inch up from the base:
Next, take the tip of your paring knife and begin to trim away the remaining dark green from the stem and around the base of the artichoke. To remove the dark green from the stem, hold the artichoke in your left hand so that the stem is up. Using smooth downward strokes and starting at the end of the stem, trim away the dark green on the stem and on the bottom of the artichoke to the point where the leaves were connected to the artichoke. Next begin trimming the remaining dark green away from the base by rotating the artichoke and trimming with the tip of the paring knife as if you are peeling an apple—your knife stroke will essentially be perpendicular to the direction you were going while trimming the stem.
Note that your goal here is just to trim away the dark green. It is much more important to preserve as much of the edible artichoke as possible than to pare away nice neat strips of dark green. When all the dark green has been trimmed away, cut the artichoke in half through the stem. Using a small spoon, scoop out the choke and pull away any tough remaining yellow leaves:
Place the turned artichoke halves in the bowl with the lemon juice and turn to coat.
I should point out that you do not have to halve the artichoke to remove the choke. You may scoop the choke out by coming in from the top rather than from the cut side. This is a bit more difficult, so I don't do it this way unless I want to have the bottom whole for stuffing or some other use that requires the artichoke to be whole.
Frequently you will see a large turned artichoke that has a substantial portion of the pale inner leaves left on. My experience is that you can only do this if you have nice young, fresh artichokes. These leaves can be pretty chewy if the artichoke has any age on it. I have never seen this discussed in any cookbook. Once you have turned a lot of artichokes, you will be able to tell by how easy or difficult the artichoke is to turn whether or not these inner leaves will be tender. If in doubt, trim them off.
Now that you have a trimmed artichoke bottom, you can cook it in a variety of ways. It can be roasted whole. It can be sliced, diced or cut into wedges and stewed with a bit of butter or olive oil and some white wine, stock and/or water. The halves, slices or wedges can also be braised.
Cooked artichokes make a wonderful side dish. They also make flavorful additions to pastas, risottos, frittatas/quiches/omelets, or pizzas. Artichokes pair well with potatoes and most of the vegetables that are in season at the same time—vegetables like asparagus, peas, fava beans and spring onions. The flavor of artichokes is complimented by herbs like thyme, mint, tarragon, chives, parsley, bay leaf and basil. Cream, olive oil, lemon, white wine, cheeses (Parmesan, Pecorino, goat cheese, Fontina), garlic, anchovies, and olives are all good flavor partners as well.
If you have never turned an artichoke, I encourage you to try. The first few will take a while and might not be very pretty. But they will taste so good that it will be worth the effort to practice until it is no longer such a daunting task.
Tomorrow (or the next day) I will post a couple of recipes to get you started. I'm sure they will not be the last recipes that I share that feature artichokes. When they are in season, I like to enjoy them as often as I can.