The first time I ordered an artichoke, I just stared at those gorgeous globes until the others at my table started eating them. I watched as they dipped the leaves into the sauce and pulled them through their teeth, then savoured the heart and the bottom, before I finally attacked mine. It was love at first bite.
This beautiful, thistle-like vegetable is the ultimate finger food, and it’s also reputed to be an aphrodisiac. It’s low in calories, sodium and fat, while being rich in fibre and antioxidants.
Although not widely grown in Canada (most come from California), artichokes are a nice change from all the root vegetables and squashes when they first appear in late January.
Look for firm, heavy artichokes that have compact, tightly closed heads. Once the leaves start to separate and the head opens like a rose, the artichoke is past its prime. Bronze-tipped leaves have been “winter kissed” by frost and have a special flavour.
Artichokes come in all sizes. Small artichokes are better for sautéing, braising or marinating, medium-sized ones are best for eating on their own and the large ones are excellent for stuffing for a vegetarian main dish. Buy equal-sized heads for even cooking.
Store them in a plastic bag with a sprinkling of water for up to one week. When ready to cook, swish the head in cold water to remove any dirt. Cut the stem flush with the base of the leaves to allow the artichoke to sit flat when served.
The artichoke bottom, the fleshy area above the stalk, makes the best eating. It is protected by the fuzzy choke, which must be removed. To remove before cooking, separate the leaves to open the centre. With a serrated knife, cut away the spikey inner leaves and scrape out the choke. To remove after cooking, pull out the central green leaves, exposing the choke, which can then be scooped out with a spoon. Eat artichoke leaves with your fingers.
To cook artichokes, remove the small bottom leaves. With a sharp knife, cut off the top quarter of the artichoke. With scissors, snip the pointed sharp tops off the remaining outer leaves. Rub the cut edges with a half lemon to keep them from turning black, or place in a bowl of water with the juice of a lemon.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. (Do not use an aluminum pot as it will cause the artichokes to turn black.) Add half a lemon to help maintain the colour. Immerse the artichokes, pushing them down into the water if they bob up. Reduce the heat to medium and partly cover the pot. Boil for 15 to 40 minutes, depending on size. To test for doneness, pierce the bottom with a knife, or pull off a leaf; it will come away easily. Drain well, and rinse with cold water to stop cooking. Turn upside down on a wire rack to remove any water enclosed by the leaves. Serve warm or cold with a vinaigrette.
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