Artichokes comprise perhaps the single most complete, sensuously pleasing meal. Leaves softened by steam torn from the flower bulb and dipped into homemade, garlicky aioli before the tender fleshy base of each leaf is skinned clean by teeth.
Initially painted with some vague aphrodisiac quality, the artichoke caught on because of its hearty vegetable stalk, a long shelf life (2-3 weeks once picked), and excellent nutrition. Cultivation of Artichokes, aka “the ground thorny” or blossom of the thistle, is widely documented. From the pharaoh’s Egypt to 9th century Arabic gardens, it was ancient Greece that harnessed wild artichokes best before sharing them with Rome where they later spread to France then England where Henry VII was a fan in 1530. Globe artichokes came to America first to Louisiana by way of the French and then to California via the Spanish. Today, artichokes are grown almost exclusively along the Mediterranean and in America, 100% come from California.
Appetizer or single course, artichokes have a long, romantic history specifically in the Mediterranean. It’s no wonder. As a principle winter crop, artichokes boast one of the highest antioxidant levels of any vegetable, anywhere, and is pretty much perfect for aiding digestion, lowering cholesterol, and a whole host of benefiting overall body functions. And best of all? They taste so damn good.
While artichokes can be marinated in oils, stuffed, jarred, canned, or cooked, I like them best steamed. Dean likes them best as a side to a New York rib eye. Either way, artichokes are a weekly staple here at our Annadel farmhouse. Being from California, we are lucky in tons of ways — year round artichokes is one of them. And right now, after a recent frost? They’ve gone down from $2 to $0.99 at Sonoma Market. Paired well with a light bodied red wine or a crisp, mineral driven white? It’s heaven on earth. Proof that God does love us and wants us to be happy…often!
At the market, select one “carciofo” per person with an extra one or two to spare. I can easily eat two for dinner.
Julia Child says artichokes must be “springy” and make a kind of squeak when lightly pushed together. Some foodies expound that only the closed bulbs are best while others vehemently disagree and opt for the more open bulbs. But I think the “squeak” is a key tell. It’s fresh when it protests handling.
Once home, take out your pot with fitted steamer basket and lid. Fill with water until about 1″ below the line of the basket. Wash artichokes and dry.
Cut the stem off. If its pure (without blemish inside), I remove the tough outer skin of the stem with a pairing knife and pop the top 1″ of the stem into the basket. If there’s darkness or bruising, compost it.
Next, turn the artichoke flower/bulb on its head and working from the center of the newly shorn base, carefully slice it in half. I do two cleaves, one on each side. Working carefully, slide the knife up and under the fuzzy fur stuff on the inside of the artichoke, just above the prized heart. You do not want to eat the fuzz and in Italian households, removing the fuzz prior to cooking is proper. Your artichoke halves should look like this:
Cleaned artichokes ready for steaming
Next, arrange them in the steamer basket. It’s okay if they are a bit crowded, the steam will work its magic under the lid and loosen the flesh.
Place the lid tightly on the pan and place over high heat. Bring the water to an audible boil and steam the artichokes for 15-25 minutes. Check on them after 15 minutes with a fork. Once the fork pierces the heart smoothly, they are finished. Be careful not to run out of water or over-cook them.
Once finished, remove the blazing hot artichokes from the basket with the fork and place in a cute serving dish or shallow bowl on the table. I have another empty bowl for skinned leaves too.
Once the artichokes go onto the stove, prepare the aioli. Or even before. You want the garlic to heartily steep in the olive oil. Everyone has a favorite aioli. This is ours…
In a cute dipping bowl, mix 2-3 cloves chopped garlic and a tablespoon or two of decent olive oil. I toss in a small pinch of kosher salt and fresh cracked pepper at this point too. Leave it alone for 10 minutes! Go fold laundry or something.
Come back when the artichokes are about done or cooling on the table. Eyeball the number of eaters that night and whisk in spoonfuls of mayo accordingly. Note: I prefer the Olive Oil based mayo from Best Foods. (It just tastes better. For everything.) And add in a tablespoon full of dark balsamic vinegar.
I had to add more balsamic vinegar here for more flavor...
Mix well. This is made according to taste…! So experiment!
And serve! Lately, we pair the artichokes with stalks of fresh asparagus for a surprisingly filling, savory dinner. Enjoy!
My favorite dinner lately
One last note? Should you prepare the artichokes, the space under your nails will be a bit black later on so have your emery board ready at bedtime…