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Thursday, July 25

Gapers Block

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My mother grew up in Southern California. Near her house she was able to pick artichokes that grew wild from bushes that grew among the rocks. In the Spring, she would wait for them to get to the point where they were ripe and then she would head out with a sharp knife and pick enough for her and her siblings, come home and boil them. This would go on for a week or two and she would mourn the last harvest every year.

When I was 5 we moved to rural Ohio where corn grew knee high by July, but artichokes were rare in our small grocery stores and when they did appear they were very expensive. But my mother would grit her teeth and pay dearly for this delicacy that used to be free and plentiful. When she ate them, she would often close her eyes, and I knew she was imagining that she was eating them in the California sunshine instead of the rainy, gray Ohio springtime.

She passed her love of artichokes on to me and they remain one of my favorite simple meals. I'm sure my love of this immature thistle comes largely from the memories that I have associated with eating them with my mother as a child. And when I arrive in a produce section and see round, heavy chokes with tightly-sealed leaves, I know it's that time of year again. Or maybe because yesterday was Mother's Day and I didn't get to see her. But the sight of artichokes, the thought of artichokes, makes me feel winsome and nostalgic.

However, despite being blessed with a number of friends who happily try a wide variety of foods and take great pleasure in food, not many of them are likely to pick up a couple of raw artichokes and cook them. And, well, I guess I'd like to see that change. They're high in fiber, low in fat and calories, and fun to eat. They're not a dish you can rush through. You have to sit back and slowly eat them one leaf at a time. And they may seem like a lot of work, but they're very worth it. Or at least I think they are, and I think you may too.

When you go to buy artichokes, especially during the spring and early summer, you want to look for artichokes that have tightly packed leaves. The outer ring or two may be starting to "bloom" out, and that's OK, but the tips of the leaves should be tightly held together. Feel free to peel back one of the outer leaves and look for small black spots just above where the break happens on the choke and on the leaf. If there are a lot of them, it could mean that the artichoke has been picked and held for a long time and as a result you might have a very woody tasting artichoke. If you're really unsure, try to pry back some of the center leaves and see if there are black spots below the surface. If you see black here, definitely skip it for another choke.

If the tips of the leaves have turned purple then it means that the chokes have been over-exposed to sun and will need to be cooked longer and may end up not be tender even after they're cooked. However, if you see an artichoke that looks like it is wearing bronzer on the outer leaves, it means that it may have been hit with a touch of frost and this may actually result in a better flavor. Once you get them home, store them in an unsealed plastic bag for no more than one week. After that point they'll be edible, but woody and tough.

When you're ready to cook them, make sure you have a pan that does not have an aluminum interior (an aluminum core is fine). The aluminum surface will react with the choke and cause it to turn gray-green in color and take on an odd taste that I find unpleasant. (It may also stain your pan permanently.) Fill a pan large enough to fit the chokes side-by-side with enough water so they come at least half-way up the artichoke. The tips of the leaves won't be eaten so there is no need to immerse the entire thing in water. If you have a steamer, you'll want to use it instead, but don't let the absence of a steamer prevent you from trying an artichoke. My mother has never used a steamer.

Trim the bottom off the artichoke so it will rest flat in the pan. Rinse it under cold water and open up the outer leaves a bit. Break off the outer ring of leaves and discard them. The barbs at the tips of the leaves will be softer when they're cooked so if you're confident that you can eat them without poking yourself and swearing through dinner, you're ready to put them in the pot. However, if you're cooking them for a fancy dinner or for children, you may want to use a pair of scissors to snip off the tips from each leaf. You can also place the artichoke on its side and cut through the tips of the leaves to remove most of the barbs. Now you're ready to place them in the pan over medium heat, cover it with a lid, and let it cook for about 20-25 minutes if you're boiling it in water and 30-45 minutes if you're steaming it.

You know the artichoke is ready when you can poke the bottom of the stem end with a fork and be able to pierce it easily. It should feel like poking a baked potato, with just a little bit of resistance. Without a steamer, you'll want to place the artichokes upside down in a colander and let them drain for about five minutes. This step will keep you from getting a puddle of water on your plate, so it is admittedly more a point of style than taste.

Once you've got the artichoke sitting on your plate, grab the top of one leaf and pull it away from the choke. At the base of the leaf you can see a fleshier portion on the inside of the leaf. This is the edible part. You can eat it plain, or you can dip it in a sauce. Place it between your teeth, bite down gently, and pull it out of your mouth so the fleshy part and the sauce stay in your mouth. Close your eyes, pretend it's sunny outside, and repeat many, many times.

As you get closer and closer to the inside of the choke, you'll notice that the leaves get thinner and thinner and the fleshy part ends up only at the very tip of the leaf. After a while, you'll want to pull off an entire layer of leaves and nibble off the tips. After a few repetitions of this you'll pull off several layers of tiny leaves and discard them. Under these leaves will be a fuzzy, prickly circle of fluffy spines. These hair-like bits are the "choke" and are all that stands between you and the most delicious part of the entire artichoke. Hold the base of the choke still on your plate, slide a teaspoon under the fuzzy choke and scoop it out. What you're left with is a disc, also known as the heart, that is delicious. Cut it into pieces, dip it in your sauce, and enjoy.

One of the reasons why I like this dish is, admittedly, because I never got over the childish joy of dipping food in sauces to eat it. There's something about being able to control how much extra flavoring is added to my food with each bite that makes me happy. So part of my enjoyment of this dish is the varieties of dips that can be mixed up. Here are a few I've used, but feel free to try any type of dip. If you like it, an artichoke can only make it taste better in my opinion. These recipes will be more than enough for two large artichokes and the recipes can easily be doubled, tripled, etc.

Basic Lemony Mayonnaise Sauce
1/4 cup of mayonnaise
juice from 1/2 of a lemon

Combine ingredients in a bowl and stir briskly with a spoon.

Pesto Mayonnaise
1/4 cup of mayonnaise
2 tablespoons of pesto

Combine ingredients in a bowl and stir briskly with a spoon.

Thai-inspired Sauce
1/4 cup of brown sugar
2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons of soy sauce
1/2 teaspoon of sesame oil

Combine ingredients in a bowl and stir briskly with a spoon. (If the sugar won't dissolve, heat in a microwave for 10-20 seconds, stir, and let cool before serving.

Yogurt Dill Dip
1/4 cup of plain or Greek yogurt
1 tablespoon of mayonnaise
1/2 teaspoon of onion powder
1 teaspoon of dried dill weed
juice from 1/2 of a lemon

Combine ingredients in a bowl and stir briskly with a spoon. Ideally you'll be able to refrigerate this for 4 hours before serving to permit the flavors to merge.

Horseradish Dip
2 tablespoons of sour cream
2 tablespoons of mayonnaise
1 teaspoon of chopped chives
1 tablespoon of horseradish
Large pinch of salt
Several grinds of freshly cracked pepper

Combine ingredients in a bowl and stir briskly with a spoon. Refrigerate for 4 hours before serving to permit the flavors to merge.

Tofu Scallion Dip
1/4 cup of silken tofu
1 scallion sliced
1 small clove of garlic, cut in half
a large pinch of salt
1/2 teaspoon of paprika

Place all of the ingredients in a blender or food processor and pulse several times until the scallion is finely minced. Scrape down the sides of the bowl several times. Place in the refrigerator for a few hours to let the flavors blend before serving.

With so many dip options, artichokes make a great light meal by themselves, or are a fabulous introductory course to a great dinner. They're an especially great way to kick off a dinner of friends since you'll have to sit there for several minutes talking while you slowly eat the first course. And the slight messiness and hand-on needs will hopefully help people relax a bit if they're nervous.

If you're interested in serving wine with your artichokes, be forewarned that they contain an acid called cynarin which makes beverages taste sweeter than they are. Therefore avoid anything that is a dry white or a tanniny red wine. A lightly sweet champagne would go well with artichokes, as would most rosé wines, or even a gewurztraminer would be good. If you want to serve a red, a Nero d'Avola that is fruity would be a nice pairing, and you should be able to get a decent bottle for $12 or less.

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annie / May 12, 2008 3:29 PM

thank you for these tips. I actually tried making stuffed artichoke last night before reading this and it didn't work out, I think I know where I went wrong now.

annie / May 12, 2008 3:30 PM

thank you for these tips. I actually tried making stuffed artichoke last night before reading this and it didn't work out, I think I know where I went wrong now.

jen / May 13, 2008 3:54 PM

i've always dipped mine in a little melted butter. ;)


About the Author(s)

Cinnamon Cooper is an untrained cook. Most of what she's learned has been by accident. The rest has been gained by reading cookbooks, watching The Food Network and by scouring the Internet. Oh, and she also hates following recipes but loves the irony of writing them down for others to follow.

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