Lynda Balslev: Demystifying the artichoke
For many, the artichoke is confounding. While considered a delicacy in Mediterranean and Californian cuisine, for the uninitiated, figuring out how to unearth its prized heart can be a mystery.
The artichoke is the bud of a thistle. The leaves cover a hairy center, or choke, perched over the meaty heart, which is the artichoke’s culinary treasure. It takes a little bit of work, admittedly, but once you understand the do’s and don’ts of trimming and cooking an artichoke, it’s a breeze, if not a sport.
Large or globe artichokes can grow to the size of a small melon. They are often green; if you are lucky, in the springtime you can snag beautiful purple artichokes. The flavor difference between green and purple artichokes is subtle; purple artichokes are slightly heartier and earthier in flavor, but the distinction is minimal.
The outer leaves of an artichoke are tough and inedible, but the underlying leaves are more tender with a layer of meat. The meat on the base of the inner leaves can be scraped off with your teeth when you eat.
Clearly, none of this is intuitive.
Steaming artichokes is the easiest and healthiest method of preparation, and the best bet for retaining their subtle flavor (if you boil them, they will be watery). To prepare, you need to trim the artichoke first. As you trim, be sure to rub all the cut parts with lemon juice to prevent discoloration, which happens quickly. Begin at the base or stem; cut it off, leaving about 1/2-inch intact. Using a serrated knife, cut about 1 inch off the top. Again, rub all the cut parts with lemon. Then pull off and discard the tough outer leaves at the base and sides of the artichoke. Using kitchen scissors, cut the pointy tips of the remaining leaves (this is both for appearance and to prevent nicking when you handle the artichoke — it’s a thistle, after all). Rub again with lemon.
Place the artichoke in a steamer filled with 1 to 2 inches of water. Squeeze the rest of the lemon over the artichoke and in the water, then throw the lemon into the steamer with the artichoke. If you like, you can add a few crushed garlic cloves or a bay leaf to the water. (I often do this to feel more chef-y, but frankly, I have yet to discern any distinct flavor from this step.)
Steam the artichoke until the base is tender — but not too soft or mushy — when pierced with a knife, and the leaves easily pull away. This could take anywhere from 35 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the artichoke. Yes, it’s vague, but once you’ve done this once or twice, you’ll have a feel for your preferred level of doneness.
Remove the artichoke from the steamer and cool to the touch. If serving the artichoke as is, present it whole and let everyone do the leaf-pulling. A layer of meat will be at the base of the leaves and should be scraped off with your teeth. Serve with a dipping sauce, such as an aioli or a vinaigrette. Keep nibbling on the leaves until the softest, flappiest leaves remain. You can pull them all out together at this point to expose the hairy choke.
Using a spoon, scoop out and discard all the bits of the choke to unearth the meaty prize: the heart. You can then tussle over how to divide the heart between yourselves. (Note that the choke in large artichokes is inedible and must be removed. However, in baby artichokes, the choke is relatively unformed and can be eaten — but that’s for another recipe.)
Artichoke hearts are a key ingredient in this dip, so the entire preparation must be done in advance. When the leaves are pulled away, reserve them for eating the dip. To serve, dip the leaves into the dip and scrape the meat from the leaves with your teeth. You can also serve the dip with crudites.
This recipe is inspired by a recipe from Ocean Mist Farm.
White Bean and Artichoke Dip
Active time: 20 minutes
Total time: 1 hour
Yield: Makes about 1 1/2 cups
2 purple or green artichokes
1 lemon, halved
1 (15-ounce) can white cannellini beans, drained
Juice and zest of one untreated lemon (divided)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more to taste
Dash or two of hot sauce, such as Tabasco
Using a serrated knife, cut off the stems of the artichokes, leaving about 1/2-inch intact. Cut about 1 inch off the tops of the artichokes. Peel away the outer leaves. Rub the artichokes with a lemon half. Place in a steamer filled with about 1 inch of water. Squeeze the remaining juice from the lemon halves into the steamer and add the lemons. Cover the pot, bring to a boil, and steam until the leaves easily pull away from the artichokes, 35 to 45 minutes, depending on size of the artichokes.
Remove the artichokes from the steamer and cool to the touch. Peel away the sturdy leaves and reserve. Remove the soft inner leaves and discard. With a small spoon, scoop out the chokes and discard, leaving the hearts exposed. Dice the hearts and place in a food processor with the remaining ingredients. Process until smooth. Taste for seasoning.
Spoon the dip into a bowl. Garnish with freshly ground black pepper and lemon zest. Serve with the reserved artichoke leaves for dipping. As you eat the dip, scrape the remaining meat on the leaves with your teeth, which will amplify the artichoke flavor of the dip.
Lynda Balslev is a cookbook author, food and travel writer, and recipe developer based in the San Francisco Bay area
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