We had a holiday last week, one of four that make May in France a very, er, leisurely month. It was a sunny day, and I took advantage of the rare burst of fine weather by browsing the used books at Shakespeare & Company and meeting a friend for afternoon scoops of ice cream. On my way home, I ran into Kristin Scott Thomas, tiny and beautiful even hidden behind a giant pair of sunglasses, holding the hand of a young boy who I imagine was her son. And then I settled down to cook some artichokes.
I grew up eating round, heavy globe artichokes, dipping the leaves in mayonnaise and scraping the flesh off with my front teeth. The center never cooled fast enough, and one of my first food memories is the sting of burning choke and thistle against my fingertips as I clawed my way to the meaty heart. (Surely that must be a metaphor for something.) Have you ever noticed that whatever you eat after eating artichokes tastes sweet? I remember the glasses of milk I gulped down afterwards, cool and honeyed.
The slender bunches of artichokes I’d bought at the market that morning were not globes, but a pretty, purple, baby variety called poivrade. And it was a good thing it was a bank holiday, because I’d completely forgotten how long they take to prepare.
First you snap off all the tough leaves — careful not to prick yourself, artichokes have thorns — and throw them away. Keep snapping until you reveal the tender, delicate, yellow leaves underneath, as in the photo above. Unlike their protective outer siblings, this hidden layer is supple and edible.
The first time I ever prepared baby artichokes was in Bologna, Italy. I didn’t know that artichokes stained almost everything they touch. Soon, my cutting board, apron, and white t-shirt were all smudged black. My fingertips looked like they’d been booked and printed at the local precinct.
Once you’ve stripped your artichoke to its silky underwear, slice off the stem and the top two-thirds of the leaves, as in the photo above.
With a vegetable peeler, pare off the bumpy, fibrous bits of the stem-end, then rub a lemon over the cut surfaces. This supposedly prevents the artichokes from oxidizing and blackening — as does the bowl of acidulated water in which the cleaned chokes rest — but in reality there’s no stopping Mother Nature. Despite my best efforts, my hearts always darken.
Slice the artichoke in half. Aren’t they pretty? I love that soft fuzzy center, the colors of creamy pale yellow, and secret flash of violet. In a (mostly futile) effort to maintain the color, I usually rub more lemon over all the cut surfaces.
Now, take a small spoon and dig at the fuzzy thistle in the center of the halved artichoke. Scrape it all out, using a bit of firm pressure.
Et, voila — a cleaned artichoke heart!
Quickly, drop it into a bowl of acidulated water, where it will bob as you finish preparing the others. And when all the hearts are clean…
Slice them finely for braising (as in the recipe below), or eat them raw in a salad with arugula and shaved parmesan, or use them as a pizza topping, or, or, or…
Artichokes + chile + mint
10 baby artichokes (called poivrade)
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely sliced
1/2 teaspoon crushed chile flakes (or more to taste)
1 cup water
Large handful fresh mint leaves, chopped
Clean and prepare the artichokes, as illustrated above. Slice them finely. Warm the olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. When it shimmers, add the garlic and sauté for a minute, to release its scent. Add the crushed chili and sliced artichokes, stirring to coat them with oil. Add the water and mint, bring to a boil and lower heat to a simmer. Cover and cook gently, until the artichokes are soft and very tender, about 15 minutes. Add a dash or two of more water if the pan seems dry. Season to taste.
I like to toss the cooked artichokes with 250 grams (half pound) of penne, adding dashes of pasta cooking water to keep everything fluid. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve with a healthy sprinkle of parmesan cheese.