Artichokes are my favorite vegetable, when in season. They are not a vegetable, but a flower, or better a thistle: if you let the plant grow without cutting the thistle you will have a beautiful decorative flower with strong and multicolored leaves.
They have been known in the Mediterranean basin, and consumed by the Egyptian and Arabs, since the 4th century AD. But it is really in Italy in the 15th century that the cultivation of artichokes became extensive. Since then, it never stopped as the health benefits of artichokes are numerous, the taste unique, and it is a versatile ingredient that can be used in a multitude of recipes.
Artichokes are known to be helpful to lower blood sugar, to lower blood pressure, to have digestive properties, to stimulate the liver functions. They are very rich in fibers, very low in calories, and they provide a bountiful of important elements in a natural way: iron, potassium, magnesium, vitamins.
So why don’t we eat artichokes everyday? Well, talking with friends I discovered that many people are intimidated by the fresh artichokes, not knowing very well how to clean and cook them. And often people have a bad experience: after spending half an hour prepping and cooking, they end up with a vegetable on their plate that it is so hard to chew that it becomes
unpleasant and hard to eat.
A couple of good suggestions will help fix that!
First: the variety. I could name ten varieties of artichokes grown in Italy and know what they are best for: to be consumed raw, fried, steamed, sautéed; what the prime season is (generally February to May/June); which region is best known for each variety, and so on.
Here in the US, artichokes are available year-round, and for the most part it is one variety, the huge ones, with very hard stems. This variety is good only for boiling and eating the French way: removing the leaves and dipping them into a mustard sauce.
So, rule of thumb: whenever I find the SMALLER artichokes, I buy them, as the size is an important factor in guaranteeing a soft artichoke. Usually, Trader Joe’s carries this variety for an extremely reasonable price (no publicity here, just mere facts). Choose the ones with closed leaves, as compact as possible (sign that it is a younger thistle), as ash green as possible (outer yellowing leaves are a sign of age).
And get ready to have a blast!
For 2 portions – as a side dish
4 small artichokes
2 cups of water
Juice of one lemon
1 whole lemon
2 cloves of garlic
Mint and or parsley
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Salt and Pepper
1. Prepare in a sauté pan a broth with 2 cups of water, the juice of one lemon, 2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, garlic, salt and pepper to taste. Keep it simmering.
2. Clean the artichokes before washing them; with a serrated bread knife, cut off the point – almost halfway, usually at the height of the second layer of leaves starting from the base.
3. Putting the blade parallel to the length of the artichokes, start removing the leaves going around the heart of the artichoke. This process will eliminate most remaining dark green leaves and expose the tender yellow leaves.
4. With a paring knife, cut ¾ of an inch of the stem. Peel the rest of the stem (the inside is edible and tasty!). Cut the green part of the leaves still attached to the base of the artichoke. You should now have only light green / yellowish flesh and leaves.
5. Quickly cut a lemon in half and rub it against the whole surface of the artichoke. Plunge the artichoke in a bowl with water and leave it there, together with the half lemon (squeezed).
6. Go on with the other artichokes, always rubbing with the other half lemon to delay oxidation.
7. Once all have been cleaned, take one from the water, shake off excess water, cut in half lengthwise, and then again in half (quarters – if they are on the bigger side, you can cut in eights).
8. If the artichoke has grown a “beard” (the tiny little white hair in the heart of the Artichoke), remove with a pairing knife.
9. Plunge the quarters in the boiling broth and go on quickly until finished.
10. Cover and let simmer for 15-20 minutes – or more if you feel that they are still too hard.
11. When cooked, remove the lid and turn on the heat, until almost all the liquid has evaporated, sautéing the artichokes so that they are equally coated with the cooking juices.
12. Serve hot as a side dish; I love to eat the artichokes with mozzarella. Strange pairing maybe, let me know if you like it!
A Few Notes:
- The artichokes will make your fingers and your cutting board become black (only temporarily!) wear gloves if you need to show your hands just after prepping them!
- If the inside leaves have become reddish-purple, cut the colored part with a pair of scissors. You only want to keep yellowish leaves, no green, no purple!
- Work fast! Have everything organized before starting. If oxidation occurs, cut off the blackened parts: they are edible, but they look less appetizing in your cooked artichoke.
- Of course, you can chop the garlic if you like to enhance the flavor. Personally, I prefer to have just a hint of garlic, and I remove the cloves after cooking.
- You can use the artichokes in a variety of dishes: from pasta to frittata, just follow your intuition!
Elisabetta Ciardullo is the founder of Think Italian! Events. As Personal Chef she is an ambassador of the Italian cuisine and culture, bringing it into the private homes of Americans, as well as to many corporate clients in Los Angeles.