A whole artichoke is an intimidating food. Tough, prickly, and seemingly devoid of any edible parts. And, as if it that weren’t enough, there’s an inedible layer of something called “choke.” I’m convinced that people would eat fewer carrots if they had a part referred to as the “gag.” Same for broccoli if instead of florets, they had “poison bundles.”
But once you cross the psychological barriers to cooking artichokes, they are actually simple to deal with. With a sharp knife and a decent pair of scissors, it only takes a minute to prep a whole artichoke for cooking, and once prepped, you can just boil/steam them to great success.
And the artichoke, like popcorn or lobster, is one of those wonderful foods that make it socially acceptable to consume generous amounts of melted butter. And you can really never have enough of those.
My roommate and I had never cooked artichokes ourselves when we embarked on this little adventure, and we were both stymied by the recipes found in cookbooks, whose instructions for cleaning, prepping, and cooking artichokes were somewhat inscrutable.
This is not because they are complicated, but because if you’re not somewhat familiar with how artichokes are generally prepped and eaten, there’s little frame of reference for the directions. There is a lot of quartering, scooping, and trimming recommended, with little elaboration on what exactly the goal of these actions is. So here, to the best of my ability, is a layman’s guide to prepping an artichoke:
- Remove any of the outermost leaves that are loose or discolored.
- While the center of an artichoke stem is fully edible, you’re not going to deal with cooking it. I promise. So just chop the stem off close to the base in such a way that the artichoke can stand up on its own.
- The business end of the artichoke – that is, not the stem end – comes to more or less of a point when you buy it. When it’s served to you in a restaurant, it’s a flat surface. To make example A look like example B, just lop off the top third of the artichoke and toss it.
- Each leaf of an artichoke tends to end in a pointy thorn. (The artichoke is, after all, a member of the thistle family.) The established rules of entertaining generally discourage serving guests food with points sharp enough to draw blood, so it’s advisable to get rid of these. Scissors are the way to go here; just snip the tips.
- Your artichoke is now ready to cook. If you’re not doing so immediately, place the artichokes in water with a bit of lemon juice or vinegar so they don’t turn brown.
To cook the artichokes, just place them in a couple of inches of simmering water in a sauce pan and boil/steam for 30-40 minutes. When you can pull a middle leaf from the artichoke easily, they’re done. Serve with melted butter and napkins.
Not everyone knows how to eat an artichoke. So: To eat a whole artichoke, just pluck off a leaf, dip it in butter, and then run its surface between your teeth to scrape off the meat, which is at the bottom of the leaf on the inner side. There’s not a lot on each leaf, so the activity to consumption ratio is relatively high, but to me that’s half the fun.
The first time I ate a whole artichoke, I was confused because I could not find the heart; there was nothing in my artichoke that resembled the neatly bundled hearts that come frozen or in jars. Well it turns out that that’s because commercial artichoke hearts come from baby artichokes, which have not yet formed a choke and yield those tidy little bundles.
But there’s still a heart and it’s delicious. As you work your way toward the center of the artichoke, you’ll eventually hit a cluster of small reddish leaves with little sharp thorns. Don’t eat these. Instead, take a knife – it doesn’t need to be a sharp one – and slice the leaves off the base of the artichoke. They’re concealing the choke, which looks like a pile of short pieces of thread and is truly an unpleasant thing to consume. Scrape all of this off the base of the artichoke – it will come off easily – and you’ll be left with a slightly concave little circle of artichoke.
This is the heart in an adult artichoke, and it’s delicious. Be prepared to fight for it. Even Emily Post says that it is acceptable to stab your dining companions’ hands with a fork if they try to take more than their fair share.
To try something different, prep the artichokes exactly as described above, but the quarter the artichokes vertically. (See picture above.) Now remove the innermost, thorny leaves and the choke from each quarter using a spoon. This will make much more sense if you have eaten a whole artichoke before and understand its topography. If you haven’t though, just be sure to get all the stringy stuff out.
Then just toss the quarters in olive oil, salt, pepper, and a little lemon juice. Toss them in a pan with a thin layer of olive oil, and roast at 350 for 20-25 minutes. Test for doneness by inserting a fork into the base/heart. It should slide in easily.
And that’s the artichoke. Intimidating in theory, easy in practice. They’re great for entertaining as they require no attention while cooking and they provide a communal eating experience.
Oh, and did I mention the melted butter?