Food & Drink

Diving into the delicious mess that is the artichoke

Roasted artichokes can be the base of an excellent salad, albeit one with a softer texture than the slawlike raw kind, and a browned, almost meaty flavor.
Roasted artichokes can be the base of an excellent salad, albeit one with a softer texture than the slawlike raw kind, and a browned, almost meaty flavor. New York Times

There is something extravagant about trimming an artichoke heart. The vegetable matter is peeled, plucked and trimmed into a messy heap that is larger than the center bit we manage to save.

To an artichoke novice, it can seem absurdly wasteful. And to all cooks, it’s a time-consuming process.

But all that trimming is necessary, and the payoff is big. Biting into a well-trimmed artichoke, without any fibrous distractions, is one of the best things about springtime eating – the joys of asparagus, peas and ramps included.

And I promise, the more practice you get, the easier it is. Pull off any leaf (also colloquially called a petal) that feels thicker than a sheet of newspaper. If you can’t easily bend it with your fingers, it will be too tough to chew, even after cooking.

Then reach into the center of the flowerlike thistle and scrape out any purplish spikes you see, along with the white choke lying like a shag carpet over the flesh. A serrated grapefruit spoon works nicely here, but a regular spoon or paring knife will also get the job done.

One thing you should not trim away, though, is the artichoke stem, particularly on medium to large thistles. The white core, which you can see from the bottom of the stem, tastes as sweet and nutty as the heart. Peel or cut off the outer green parts, and keep as much of this core as you can.

Sometimes I munch the stems raw, dunked in olive oil and salt while I hack my way through a mountain of artichokes. It’s the chef’s treat – the vegetable version of eating the chicken tail when you’re carving up a roasted bird.

As you trim your artichokes, be sure to rub lemon all over the cuts – the acid will keep the flesh from oxidizing and turning slightly bitter. A dunk in lemon-infused water also does the trick. While this step is important if you’re going to cook the artichokes, it’s imperative if you plan to serve them raw, slivered into a salad. Artichokes can take plenty of lemon without wilting or turning sour, so be generous.

Roasted artichokes also make an excellent salad, albeit one with a softer texture than the slawlike raw kind, and a browned, almost meaty flavor.

Here I toss the roasted wedges with peas and plenty of mint, and serve them on a bed of lemon-flavored ricotta, an idea I picked up at a dinner party on my last trip to Rome.

Another dish inspired by Italian sojourns is pasta with a sauce of sautéed artichoke hearts and pancetta. The key here is to use the starchy pasta water to bring the elements together; the artichokes themselves don’t exude enough liquid to create a sauce.

But they’ve got an intense flavor that stands up to the salty pancetta and the Parmesan cheese sprinkled on at the end.

If you’d rather be more minimalist in terms of trimming, you can follow the French and steam your artichokes whole.

You'll still need to snip off the pointed petal tips to keep from scratching yourself while eating. But the petals stay attached until you pull them off after cooking. Dunk them in melted butter before scraping off the sweet fleshy bits between your teeth.

Then, when the petals are all gone, scoop off the fuzzy choke and savor the soft heart, dunking it in even more butter. It’s an eat-with-your hands feast, a springtime treat well worth all the mess.

Pasta With Artichokes and Pancetta

Yield: 3 to 4 servings

Time: 1 hour

1 lemon, cut in half

4 medium artichokes, or 8 to 10 small or baby artichokes

8 ounces short tubular or corkscrew-shaped pasta

Kosher salt

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, more as needed

6 ounces pancetta, diced

1 large leek, halved and thinly sliced

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper, more for serving

2 tablespoons dry (white) vermouth or not-too-dry white wine

2 tablespoons chopped chives

1/4 cup parsley or mint leaves, chopped

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, more for serving

Fresh lemon juice, for serving

Squeeze one lemon half into a large bowl of cold water. Pluck off all tough leaves from one artichoke, until you reach leaves that are pale and soft. Using a vegetable peeler or paring knife, peel stem and trim base of artichoke, then dunk it in lemon water to keep it from browning. Cut off the top 1/3 of artichoke and discard. Cut artichoke in half; remove any inner purple leaves and scoop out the fuzzy choke if there is one. Thinly slice artichoke lengthwise to include some of the heart. Put slices in the lemon water and leave them there as you cut remaining artichokes.

Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil, then cook pasta according to package directions. Reserve 1 cup pasta water, then drain.

Meanwhile, heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Stir in pancetta and cook until browned and crispy, stirring occasionally, 8 to 12 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to transfer pancetta to a paper towel-lined plate; leave fat in pan.

Drain the artichokes, shaking them well to remove excess water. Raise heat under pan to medium-high, and stir in artichokes, leeks, 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper, and cook until golden brown and tender, 10 to 12 minutes. Reduce heat to low, and stir in vermouth, scraping up any browned bits from bottom of skillet.

Stir in cooked pasta, pancetta, chives and parsley. If the mixture seems dry, add pasta water, a little at a time. Stir in more salt to taste, Parmesan and lemon juice to taste.

Transfer to serving plates and top with a drizzle of oil, more black pepper, and more grated cheese.

Roasted Artichokes With Ricotta and Peas

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Time: 1 hour

1 lemon, cut in half

4 medium artichokes, or 8 to 10 small or baby artichokes

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, more for garnish

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, more to taste

1 cup fresh peas (from about 1 pound of peas in the pod) or frozen peas

2 cups fresh ricotta cheese

Finely grated zest from 1 lemon

1/4 cup torn mint or dill, or a combination

Flaky sea salt, to taste

Fresh lemon juice, to taste

Crostini, for serving (optional)

Heat oven to 375 degrees.

Squeeze one lemon half into a large bowl of cold water. Pluck off all tough leaves from one artichoke, until you reach leaves that are pale and soft. Using a vegetable peeler or paring knife, peel stem and trim base of artichoke, then dunk it in lemon water to keep it from browning. Cut off the top 1/3 of artichoke and discard. Slice artichoke lengthwise into quarters; remove any inner purple leaves and scoop out the fuzzy choke if there is one. Put the quarters in the lemon water and leave them there as you cut remaining artichokes.

Drain the artichokes, shaking them well to remove excess water. On a rimmed baking sheet, toss artichokes with oil and salt. Roast until golden and tender, 25 to 35 minutes, tossing them halfway through.

Meanwhile, bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Slip in peas; cook for 1 to 2 minutes until tender, then drain.

In a medium bowl, stir together ricotta, lemon zest and kosher salt to taste. Spread out on a plate, and top with peas, artichokes, mint, flaky sea salt and lemon juice to taste. Drizzle generously with olive oil. Serve with crostini if desired.

Steamed Artichokes With Lemon Butter

Yield: 4 servings

Time: 1 1/4 to 2 hours, depending on size

2 large artichokes, or 4 medium artichokes

1 whole lemon, halved, plus 2 tablespoons lemon juice

1 garlic clove, finely grated or minced

Large pinch of kosher salt

4 tablespoons melted butter

Pull off any brown or very tough outer leaves from one artichoke. Use a sharp knife to cut off the top 1 inch of artichoke, then rub with the cut side of the lemon. Use kitchen shears or scissors to cut the pointy tops off the remaining outer layer of leaves. Use a vegetable peeler or paring knife to peel the stem down to its tender pale-colored core; immediately rub the stem with a lemon half. Use your fingers to separate the center leaves to expose the fuzzy pale choke sitting on top of the heart. Use a grapefruit spoon (or other spoon) to scoop out the choke, and rub a little lemon juice over the exposed flesh. Repeat with the remaining artichokes.

Fill a medium pot with 2 inches of water, place a steamer basket inside, and bring water to a simmer. Place the artichokes bottoms down on the rack, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and simmer over low heat until you can easily pull off an artichoke leaf, 45 minutes to 1 1/2 hours. Remove from the steamer basket and transfer to a serving platter.

Meanwhile, in a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, garlic and salt. Slowly whisk in butter. To serve, have everyone pull off the leaves and dunk the meaty bottoms into the lemon butter, swirling to mix butter with each dip (the butter will separate as it sits).

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