Oh, Baby! Artichokes

September 16, 2011

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.

~Luis Buñuel

While memory is often altered to suit self and others (as if life then stands explained), we carry our youth through life. Our early impressions doggedly remain, however spun later to placate others. Sometimes correcting unjust misperceptions or often simply revising the past to fit the present. Thankfully, food has stasis and lacks this kind of delusion. Food adorns a plate honestly without demand or compromise, and sometimes even dominates conversation, imagination. I have been smitten by these green thistles since childhood…at first infatuation, then a torrid tryst and finally an abiding love that has perservered. And at least with artichokes you can rinse and carve away the bitterness.

Despite the misnomer, luscious baby artichokes are not infants. Rather, they are fully mature perennials that grow closer to the ground than their rotund partners, sheltered by fronds overhead which effectively stunts their growth. Artichokes are meticulously planted and harvested by hand. At full blossom, the plants spread to some 6 feet in diameter and reach a height of 3-4 feet. The fields are maintained in perennial culture for some 5-10 years with each cropping cycle launched by cutting back the tops several inches below the soil to stimulate development of new shoots. Sometimes called “stumping,” this is timed to initiate a new harvest.

These tender baby morsels are coveted by chefs thanks to their ease of prep and plating beauty, whether sautéed, roasted, braised, grilled, steamed, or fried. Unlike with larger globes, the inner fuzzy choke does not develop making the plant almost fully edible.

Usually available throughout the year they have a peak spring season, and then a smaller crop is reaped in autumn. Select small, tightly closed, firm, heavy, evenly green artichokes. Avoid dry looking thistles that are browning or too open or gaping.


Juice of 1 lemon
Cold water
12 baby artichokes

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
4 fresh sage leaves
1/4 C fresh tarragon leaves, loosely packed
1/2 C fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
Small pinch of red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper

Sea salt
Parmigiano-reggiano, grated
1 T capers (optional)

Rinse the artichokes under cold water. This will remove the natural thin film that can give the choke a bitter taste. Then, snap off the outer layer of leaves until you reach the pale, yellow-green layer of petals—sort of half-green at the top and half-yellow at the bottom. Trim off the stem and pare all remaining dark green areas from bases as they can prove bitter. Cut about 1/2″ off the tops of the artichokes and then cut them in half lengthwise.

To prevent browning, soak the trimmed artichokes in cold water acidulated with lemon or vinegar. This also loosens dirt that may have settled between the leaves. Drain the artichokes well and press between kitchen or paper towels to remove most of the water.

Place a heavy, large sauté pan over medium high heat, then add the olive oil and heat until shimmering. (Please be aware that the water residue will cause spatter when the artichokes are added to the hot oil.)

Add the artichokes in batches to the heated olive oil and toss quickly to sear. Add the garlic, herbs, red pepper flakes, black pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the artichokes are tender, caramelized and slightly crisp at the edges, about 8-10 minutes. Do not burn the garlic—it should be light golden. Season with salt, very lightly sprinkle with grated parmigiano-reggiano, and strew with a few capers.

Aïoli epitomizes the heat, the power, and the joy of the Provençal sun, but it has another virtue—it drives away flies.
~Frédéric Mistral


Globe artichokes (Cynara cardunculus) are perennial thistles with origins in the Mediterranean, probably North Africa or Sicily. After the plant travelled throughout Europe, Spanish settlers brought artichokes to what is now California in the 1600’s—but they were not widely grown there until the first quarter of the 20th century. Castroville, California, became artichoke famous on a national scale when Marilyn Monroe was crowned Artichoke Queen in 1948.

The edible portions of the plant are fleshy lower portions of the leaves (bracts) and the base or receptacle, known as the heart. The mass of florets in the center of the bud is called the choke.

Artichokes contain a compound called cynarin, which stimulates taste bud receptors enhancing even the simplest of flavors. They are deceptively healthy—a fertile source of silymarin, an antioxidant traditionally used in many cultures to treat liver, gallbladder and digestive disorders. They also provide other nutrients such as magnesium, potassium, folic acid as well as carotenoids, such as lutein and zeaxanthin. Artichokes are virtually fat free.

Choose globes that are dark green, heavy, and have tightly knit leaves. Dry looking globes that appear to be turning brown and are too open are past their prime.


1 artichoke
1 fresh lemon, quartered and seeded
12 black peppercorns
2 t salt
2 bay leaves
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

Lay the artichoke on its side on a cutting board; using a large chef’s knife, cut away the entire top quarter in one slice. Cut off the stem at the bottom, so the artichoke will stand upright in the serving dish. Cut off the very bottom of the stem, peel it and and retain. Pull off the tough bottom leaves. Then, using scissors, cut away the thorny end of each remaining leaf. I actually prefer leaving the leaf ends intact as it seems more visually pleasing. You just need to care to avoid being pricked throughout your dining experience.

Fill pasta pot halfway with water, and and add lemon, peppercorns, salt, bay leaves, thyme and garlic. Bring to a boil and then place the artichoke directly in water. Reduce the heat to a lively simmer and cook until a large leaf easily pulls away, about 35 minutes. Remove from the heat and strain through a colander.

(You may also steam the artichoke in a basket with 2 inches or so of water in the pot.)

Serve hot, at room temperature or cold with drawn peppered butter, aïolis, or mayonnaise. Use your teeth to scrape the flesh from the bottom of each leaf. Either use a specially desiged artichoke plate or have a bowl on the side for the discarded leaves. Do not forget that the leaves closest to the heart of the choke are very tender. Once you reach the last flimsy leaves that cover the choke and heart in the middle, cut them away with a circular motion with a spoon or knife. Discard both the leaves and the fuzzy choke underneath, then slice up that succulent heart and stem.


Prepare aïoli (see Aïoli, Aïoli, Aïoli post)


Basic aïoli recipe
1 small can of chipotle chilies in adobo, partially drained and finely minced
1/2 fresh lime
Pinch of dried cumin
Handful of fresh cilantro, finely chopped

To the basic aïoli recipe, add finely minced chipotles and some of the adobe to taste; add the cumin, a squeeze of fresh lime and cilantro. Mix well.