There's a lot more to the artichoke than you might have thought. And though they look so unquestionably inedible, there is no shortage of ways to cook them.
The vast majority of artichokes, however, are consumed only one way: boiled or steamed and served with drawn butter or flavored mayonnaise. And certainly, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. The only problem is believing that's where artichokes end.
Granted, there are a few things you need to be aware of when you're cooking them. Artichokes take some preparation. And don't leave out the step of periodically dipping them in water to which vinegar or lemon juice has been added, or they'll turn dark and rusty.
Maybe the most important thing to remember, though, is to pay attention not only to the big old artichokes used for steaming (growers call them "hubcaps"), but also to medium and baby chokes, which have just as much flavor, and, depending on size, little or no inedible choke. All sizes are readily available now at supermarkets all over Long Island.
So what do you do with these little artichokes? They're great simply glazed as a side dish: Quarter them and remove the choke, put them in a skillet with just enough water to cover the bottom and a good glug of olive oil; cook, covered, on medium until they're tender, then remove the lid and increase to high until the liquid evaporates to form a syrup; season as you wish (garlic certainly, other herbs as you prefer).
You can use this technique to start all sorts of dishes -- sauces for pasta, first step in risottos, even vegetable stews. I love the combination of artichokes and potatoes, particularly when you bind them with cream and bacon.
HOW TO PREPARE AN ARTICHOKE
Trimming artichokes can be a long, painful process, but it doesn't have to be. Try these methods:
Trimming baby artichokes
1. Fill a bowl with cool water and add the juice of 1 lemon. Hold an artichoke in one hand with the stem facing toward you and the tip facing away. Slowly turn the artichoke against the edge of a knife while making short sawing motions, cutting the outer leaves at the base.
2. Keep trimming until you've cut away enough of the tough leaves to see only light green at the base. Cut away about the top 1/2 inch and place artichoke in lemon water so the cut surfaces don't discolor.
3. With a paring knife, cut off the tip of the stem, then peel the stem and base, going from the tip to where the base meets the leaves. You'll have to do this at least five or six times to make it all the way around the artichoke. When you're done, there should be no dark green tough spots left, only pale green and ivory.
4. Cut each artichoke into lengthwise quarters, and if there is a fuzzy choke inside, cut just below the choke to the very base of the leaves and the choke will pop off, leaving a clean heart below. If you want the heart to remain whole, use a grapefruit spoon to dig out the fuzz. Place the artichoke in the lemon water and go on to the next artichoke.
Trimming and cooking large artichokes
1. Fill a bowl with cold water and squeeze a halved lemon into it, then throw in the lemon halves. As you're trimming the artichoke, periodically dip it into the lemon-water, and rub cut surfaces with a lemon half.
2. Trim the end of the stem and remove any little stray leaves. With a sharp knife, cut the stem at the artichoke's base and peel it. Drop stem into lemon water (cook along with artichoke).
3. Cut the top quarter of the artichoke off and discard. If desired, use scissors to trim the tips of the leaves. (They will soften as they cook; the spikes pose no threat.) If not cooking immediately, immerse trimmed artichokes in lemon water and keep them submerged by placing a plate on top of them.
4. To boil Bring a large pot of salted water to boil, adding the juice of 1 lemon for every quart of water. Plunge artichokes into water and simmer, uncovered, 25 to 40 minutes, until a leaf near the center pulls out easily. Invert to drain.
5. To steam Place, stem up, on rack over 1 1/2 inches boiling water. Sprinkle generously with salt. Cover and cook 25 to 40 minutes, until a leaf near the center pulls out easily. Invert to drain.
ARTICHOKE AND FARRO SALAD
1 1/2 cups farro (a wheat grain)
4 1/2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus extra for seasoning
3 tablespoons minced red onion
1/4 cup fruity olive oil
3 tablespoons lemon juice
4 medium artichokes, trimmed to hearts and stored in water with lemon juice or vinegar added
1/4 cup lightly packed parsley leaves, divided
Hunk (about 1 ounce) of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Toast the farro in a dry saucepan over medium heat until it smells nutty and turns golden, about 5 minutes. Add the water and bring to a simmer. Season with 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook until farro is tender, about 45 minutes. Drain (there probably will still be some liquid left), rinse in cold running water and gently pat dry in a kitchen towel.
2. Place the farro in a mixing bowl, add minced red onion and more salt, if necessary, and set aside.
3. Whisk together olive oil and lemon juice, and stir it into the farro mixture.
4. Using a mandoline, shave the artichoke hearts as thinly as possible, 1/8 inch is adequate, 1/16 inch is better. Fold this into the farro mixture along with most of the parsley leaves.
5. Divide the mixture evenly among serving plates or arrange on a platter. Use a vegetable peeler to shave thin strips of Parmigiano-Reggiano over the top, and garnish with remaining parsley. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
ARTICHOKE, BACON AND NEW POTATO STEW
1 pound new potatoes
2 strips thick bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch strips
1 tablespoon minced shallots
4 medium artichokes, trimmed to hearts and stems, quartered lengthwise, stored in water with lemon juice or vinegar added
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup cream
2 tablespoons minced chives
1. Steam the potatoes until tender, about 15 minutes, and set aside. When cool enough to handle, cut into quarters or bite-sized pieces.
2. Fry cut-up bacon in a dry skillet over medium heat until brown, about 10 minutes. Discard all but about 1 to 2 teaspoons of fat and add the shallots. Cook until the shallots are fragrant and tender, about 3 minutes.
3. Add the artichokes and the water, cover tightly and cook until the artichokes are tender, 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Remove the lid, increase the heat to high and cook, stirring, until the liquid has reduced to traces of syrup, about 5 minutes.
5. Add the cut-up potatoes and stir to coat with juices. Add cream, salt to taste and continue cooking over high until cream has thickened and reduced enough to coat the potatoes and artichokes lightly, about 5 minutes.
6. Remove from heat and stir in the minced chives before turning into a serving bowl.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
ROASTED STUFFED ARTICHOKES WITH MINT OIL
In her book "The New Persian Kitchen" (Ten Speed Press, $24.99), Louisa Shafia suggests serving these artichokes in shallow bowls with bread to sop up the pan juices.
2 globe artichokes
1/2 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon dried mint
1/4 cup grapeseed oil (or unflavored vegetable oil)
1 clove garlic, finely minced
2 ounces ricotta cheese, drained
Pinch of saffron, ground and steeped in 1 tablespoon hot water
Grated zest of 1 lemon
1 egg, whisked
Freshly ground black pepper
1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Fill a medium bowl three-quarters full with cold water. Cut the lemon in half, squeeze the juice into the water and throw in the rind. Slice off the top third of 1 artichoke with a serrated knife and cut off the stem to make a flat base. Pull off the small leaves around the bottom and snip the tips of the remaining leaves with scissors. Stretch open the center of the artichoke with your thumbs and pluck out the inner yellow leaves. Pull out the purple choke and scrape out the fibrous hairs with a melon baller, a grapefruit spoon or a paring knife. Place artichoke in the lemon water to prevent browning and repeat with remaining artichoke.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk the 1/2 cup lemon juice with the mint, oil and garlic. Add a pinch of the salt and set aside for a few minutes to allow the mint to soften.
3. Whisk together the ricotta, saffron and lemon zest in a small bowl, and season to taste with the salt and pepper. Mix in the egg. Spoon the ricotta mixture into the center of the artichokes.
4. Place the artichokes in a rimmed baking dish. Pour the mint oil over the artichokes, drizzling it on the outer leaves as well as the filling. Add a splash of water to the baking dish and cover tightly. Roast the artichokes for 1 1/2 hours, until the flesh is very tender and the ricotta is firm and doubled in size.
5. Serve warm, topped with the pan juices.
Makes 2 servings.