This is the time of year when artichoke fans have two reasons to cheer. The harvest has already begun in Mexico and the southern U.S., which means the large flower buds can already be found in stores. Meanwhile, at farmers markets of all latitudes, purveyors of bedding plants are selling potted artichokes for the garden.
Even in Montana, the summers are getting hot enough that these Mediterranean members of the thistle family will grow larger than in cooler climates, so they need to be planted a full five feet apart.
Artichoke buds are harvested before they bloom into flowers. Unless, of course, you prefer to allow them to flower and look at rather than eat them.
Myrna Varner became an artichoke grower when a vendor — Luci Brieger of Lifeline Produce in Victor — gifted her a baby plant as she was buying tomato starts. Now Varner grows three plants a year, and they produce later into the fall than the tomatoes. "I'm ready to tear the garden up and they were still bearing," she told me. Yet she doesn't even eat them. "We get such a kick out of watching them grow," she says. Some get eaten by friends and family, while some of the buds are allowed to open into large purple flowers.
"It is good for a man to eat thistles, and to remember that he is an ass," notes Eneas Sweetland Dallas in his 1877 book Kettner's Book of the Table: A manual of Cookery, Practical, Theoretical, Historical. "But an artichoke is the best of thistles, and the man who enjoys it has the satisfaction of feeling that he is an ass of taste. There are several elaborate ways of dressing the artichoke, — the Barigoule way and Lyonnese way, for example." He calls these fancy methods "... frantic attempts to paint the lily and to perfume the violet."
I don’t have any idea what’s up with those jokes, but I think Dallas is spot-on in his less-is-more approach to artichokes.
"Depend upon it," he concludes, "the simplest way of dressing the artichoke is the best."
Dallas recommends boiling the bud, but there is a case to be made for a roasting. I enjoy the caramelized flavors, and the layers of texture that can result from some oven time. I like roasting artichokes so much, in fact, I roast them twice.
First I trim them, by laying the artichokes on their sides on a cutting board, and giving them flat-tops with a big, heavy knife. On each artichoke, slice a round, flat plane an inch or two from the tip of the artichoke. This reveals a cross-section of green, purple, pale yellow and burgundy leaves. Trim the stem to within two inches of the bottom.
Place each head in a baking container in such a way that it can stay upright — by upright we mean flat side up. In a wide mouth pint jar, the artichoke looks like a flower in a vase. A Pyrex measuring cup does the same thing. A banana bread dish holds two large artichokes, side by side. If you don't have anything that will work, trim the bottoms off so they sit flat and upright unsupported, and wing it from there.
Put a half-inch of water and a clove of garlic at the bottom of whatever container you use, and set the artichoke(s) in place. Give a solid shake or two of salt onto the top of each artichoke, followed by two tablespoons lemon or lime juice, poured slowly enough that it seeps down between the leaves. Then slowly pour in about a third of a cup of olive oil per large artichoke. Cover each artichoke in foil, pressing firmly on all sides to make a seal between the foil and the thing that's holding the artichoke. With the water in the bottom, you are essentially constructing a steamer.
Place the upright artichoke in its holder in the oven at 350 and bake (jars should be placed on a tray or skillet in case they tip). As it cooks, the oil will find its way down through the vascular tissue of the bud, through the stem and out the cut end and into the water below.
After an hour, carefully remove the artichoke and holder from the oven, and take off the foil. When it has cooled enough to handle, gently pull the leaves away from the center, working all away around the artichoke, loosening the bud as if you were trying to force it to bloom.
Get the lemon oil from below the artichoke and pour it back into the top of the half-baked artichoke, and put it back in the oven with the foil off, so the outer leaves get crispy as the center melts into a molten core of flavor. Cook about another hour, until the leaves pull of easily. (Alternatively, leave the artichoke wrapped in foil, cook for an hour at 400, and call it good).
I ate two entire roasted artichokes before it occurred to me that I hadn't encountered any of the dry, spiny and generally unpleasant chokes usually found at the center of an artichoke. I consulted Dallas on the matter. He spoke in riddles. Ass riddles, naturally.
"Some French cooks, before sending the artichoke to table, are careful to remove the choke, or as they call it, the hay. For this purpose the artichoke must either be allowed to cool, or must be dipped in cold water, and heated again after the removal of the hay — which might too vividly remind us that we are asses."
Ultimately, he leaves the question unresolved on what to make of the “hay.”
"That hay in the artichoke certainly raises a delicate question, and it must be left to the good feeling of cooks whether they will or will not send it up to table."
Most cooks today remove it, but I leave it in. Because sometimes the hay is edible, especially the chokes of young artichoke buds, which are fully edible. The chokes become more fibrous and prickly as the bud matures, but for a time the chokes aren’t a problem at all.
The artichokes I've been buying and eating this spring have been large, but for whatever reason still young at at heart. Perhaps it's because the season itself is still young. In any case, given that sometimes the chokes are completely edible, even in a big artichoke, I would leave them in. Work around them if and when they become a problem. Just don’t be an ass.
Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he "always writes about Montana. Usually."
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