Take a good look at an artichoke. See those sharp, thorny, pointy green and purple-tinged leaves? It certainly doesn't look like something you would want to eat.
I've often wondered who the first brave soul was to take a glance at this strange, exotic thorn and say: "Now there's something that must be very tasty." (It's said that artichokes have been eaten for more than 3,000 years.)
But artichokes are indeed delicious. Their flavor is not the easiest to describe. Some say artichokes are nutty, sweet and slightly bitter. Others compare them to fresh asparagus. But I think artichokes have a thoroughly unique flavor. Earthy. Meaty. Vegetal. Spring-like.
Artichokes are actually the immature flower bud of the thistle plant harvested and eaten before they bloom. They are native to the Mediterranean region (grown in Italy, France and Spain) but most of the artichokes we see in U.S. supermarkets are grown in California (the town of Castroville is considered the "Artichoke Center of the World").
They are eaten — and classified — as a vegetable and can be prepared in so many different ways: thinly sliced and eaten raw in a salad, grilled, steamed, boiled, stuffed, or baked. They make a great pizza topping. And then there's the famous (and oh-so-unhealthy) spinach-artichoke dip (made with every dairy product known to man), and the exquisite and world-renowned Roman fried artichokes.
Preparing a fresh artichoke can be intimidating for the home cook. The best place to start is by steaming it (see below) and serving the artichoke with a simple dip. Many people think that the tender, meaty inside of the artichoke known as the heart is the only part of the artichoke worth eating. I would heartily disagree. The leaves, or petals, when steamed or boiled until tender are thoroughly satisfying dipped in melted butter, doused with fresh lemon juice or dipped into a garlic aioli; see recipe below.
And when you're in a pinch, you can always rely on canned, jarred and/or marinated artichoke hearts — packed in oil and herbs as well as water — found on any grocery store shelf.
Look for artichokes that don't look dried out. The leaves should be closed and tightly wrapped around the center. If the artichoke leaves are open and separating it usually indicates that the artichoke is old.
If you see artichoke with browned leaves that say "frost kissed" it means the choke was exposed to colder temperatures. This does not affect the taste at all. And some people believe that frost-kissed artichokes have an even fuller flavor.
Types Of Artichokes
Most of us are lucky to find globe artichokes in our grocery stores. But if you live on the West Coast or have access to good farmers markets, you may find a wide variety of artichokes. Some of the best varieties to look for:
Globe artichokes: This is the type of artichoke available in most grocery stores across the country. They can be quite large, up to 5 inches or so, and are heavy. This artichoke is a member of the thistle family and is in season from June through the winter months. The leaves of a globe artichoke are generally green or purple.
Baby Anzio artichokes are small, generally around 1 inch in diameter, and tend to be red. They are ideal for steaming and then stuffing or roasting.
Big heart artichokes have a large base and are ideal for stuffed artichoke dishes.
Castel artichokes have a rounder shape and contain more nutrients than other varieties. They can be steamed or boiled.
Chianti artichokes, an Italian variety, have distinctive maroon-colored leaves.
Fiesole artichokes have a fruity flavor and a beautiful deep red color and tender stems.
Jerusalem artichokes are not actually artichokes. They are tuber-like vegetables, also called sunchokes, that have an artichoke-like flavor. They tend to be very fibrous and are excellent for soup and salads.
King artichokes are gigantic and can weigh more than a pound.
Siena artichokes have an oblong shape and reddish color. This is a variety whose hearts are tender enough to eat raw.
Violetta artichokes, an Italian heirloom, are small, with green leaves tinged with purple.
But Are Artichokes Good For You?
Artichokes are low in fat, and high in fiber, vitamins and antioxidants. One medium artichoke contains 7 grams of fiber and only 60 calories.
They are high in folate, vitamin C and K, and have a good amount of magnesium and iron. They are believed to lower blood sugar levels and improve digestion.
Steamed Artichokes With Roasted Garlic Aioli
The simplest way to eat artichokes is to steam them and dip the leaves into warm melted butter with a squeeze of fresh lemon. I love serving artichokes this way but when you want something with a little more pizazz, consider a perfectly steamed artichoke served with roasted garlic aioli.
This probably sounds a whole lot fancier than it is: All you need to do is roast some garlic in a touch of olive oil, and then smash it and mix with mayonnaise, salt, pepper and lemon juice. The aioli can be made a day ahead of time.
For the roasted garlic aioli:
1 small head garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon lemon juice
For the artichokes:
2 large artichokes
Make the roasted garlic aioli: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut about ½ inch off the top of the garlic and remove. Place the garlic in a small ovenproof skillet and pour the oil on top. Season with salt and pepper. Roast on the middle shelf for around 10 to 15 minutes or until tender when tested with a small, sharp knife. Remove and let cool for 5 minutes.
When the garlic is cool enough to handle, squeeze the cloves out of the skin and place in a medium bowl. Using a kitchen fork, mash the garlic into a thick paste. Add the mayonnaise, lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. The aioli can be made a day ahead of time; cover and refrigerate until ready to use.
Trim the artichoke as described in "Trim an Artichoke" below. Fill a large pot with about 3 inches of water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the artichokes and the lemon wedge (the acid in the lemon will keep the artichoke from turning brown) stem side down, cover and cook for about 18 to 25 minutes, depending on the size of the artichoke. Flip the artichoke from side to side one or two times during the cooking process so it cooks evenly on all sides. The artichoke is done when you can easily pull out a green leaf.
To eat: Serve the artichoke hot or at room temperature. Pull the leaves out of the artichoke and dip into the aioli.
If you've never eaten a fresh artichoke before: Place the paler green end of the leaf/petal into the aioli dip and then into your mouth. Pull, scraping through your teeth to enjoy the soft portion of the leaf/petal. Then discard the remaining leaf/petal. When you've eaten all the outer petals and reach the thinner, inner leaves/petals with purple tips, pull them away from the choke and discard.
Now it's time to cut out the prize: the artichoke heart. With a knife or spoon, scrape out the inedible fuzzy part (called the “choke”) covering the artichoke heart and discard. Below the choke is the heart. Cut the heart into small pieces and dip into the aioli.
Trim An Artichoke
Using a very sharp (serrated) knife or sharp kitchen scissors, cut about 3/4 to 1 inch off the sharp pointy ends from the top of the artichoke. Using scissors, you can also cut the blunt ends off all the artichoke leaves if you like. Remove the small leaves at the base of the artichoke. Trim the stem about 1/4 inch.
Place the artichoke under cold running water, using your fingers to loosen the leaves to get the whole thing clean. You are now ready to steam, boil, bake or grill your artichokes.
Braised Chicken Thighs With Artichokes, Green Olives And Shallots
There are so many reasons to love this simple chicken dish. The thighs are browned and then simmered with artichoke hearts, shallots, garlic, and green olives in a white wine and chicken broth. The marinade from jarred or canned artichoke hearts is also added to give the dish a more artichokey flavor.
The entire dish can be made a full day ahead of time and reheated just before serving. I like serving this dish on top of couscous, orzo or rice.
Serves 2 to 3. The recipe can easily be doubled.
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound chicken thighs, 3 to 4 thighs
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
2 shallots or 1 small red or yellow onion, cut into quarters
8 ounces marinated artichokes with marinade
3/4 cup dry white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh parsley and or minced chives
3/4 to 1 cup pitted green (or black) olives
In a large skillet heat the oil over moderately high heat. Season the chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Brown the chicken in the hot oil for about 3 to 4 minutes per side, until a rich deep golden brown. Remove to a plate.
Reduce the heat to low in the skillet and add the garlic and shallots, salt, and pepper. Cook, stirring, about 2 minutes. Stir in the artichokes and cook for another minute. Add 3 tablespoons of the artichoke marinade. Raise the heat to high and add the wine and bring to a boil. Then, add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and cook, covered with a lid or tightly wrapped foil, for 25 minutes. Remove the lid and stir in half the parsley and the olives. Cover and cook another 5 to 10 minutes, or until the chicken is thoroughly cooked through, and the juices run yellow and not pink when pierced with a small, sharp knife.
Sprinkle with the parsley and/or chives and season to taste.
Artichoke And Asparagus Soup
I've made this soup using fresh artichokes as well as canned artichoke hearts. Fresh artichokes add a brighter flavor and more buttery texture, but they can be a lot of work. Canned artichokes, if rinsed well, make a delicious soup with virtually no work. You can make the soup either way.
It's a perfect spring soup — served hot or cold. I love to garnish the soup with thin slices of grilled marinated artichokes from a jar, minced chives and a dollop of creme fraiche or cream.
One 14-ounce can artichoke hearts, or 2 large fresh artichokes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large leek, or 2 small ones, dark green section discarded and pale green and white sections cut lengthwise, washed, and thinly sliced
2 scallions, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh minced chives
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces fresh asparagus, about 8 medium stalks, ends trimmed and cut into 1-inch pieces
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
About 1/3 cup heavy cream or creme fraiche
About 1/2 cup Creme fraiche, sour cream or heavy cream
4 to 8 marinated jarred artichokes, cut into thin slices
Fresh minced chives
2 raw fresh asparagus, ends trimmed and cut into ½-inch size pieces
If using fresh artichokes, trim and prepare the artichokes as described in the Steamed Artichoke recipe above. Place in a large pot and add enough boiling water to cover them and cook, covered, over medium heat for 16 to 18 minutes, or until a leaf can be pulled out easily. Drain and set aside to cool. Remove all the leaves from each artichoke (melt some butter and eat the leaves now while warm!) and scoop out all the fuzz surrounding the heart and discard. Chop the hearts and reserve.
If using canned artichoke hearts, drain, rinse under cold running water and drain again. Set aside.
In a medium stockpot over low heat warm the olive oil. Add the leeks and scallions and cook for 8 minutes covered, stirring once or twice. Stir in the chives and the thyme and cook for 1 minute. Add the artichoke hearts and the asparagus pieces and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes. Raise the heat to high and add the stock; bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, partially cover, and cook about 20 minutes, or until the artichoke hearts and the asparagus are tender when tested with a small, sharp knife. Let cool slightly.
Using a handheld immersion blender, a food processor, or blender puree the soup until smooth. (Depending on the type of artichokes and asparagus you use the soup may appear fibrous; if so, strain through a fine-meshed strainer.) Return the soup to the pot and place over medium heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper as needed. Slowly whisk in the cream or creme fraiche.
Serve topped with any or all of the toppings.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.