Artichoke season is coming to a close here in Italy, so, I have decided that now (right now!) is the time for me to learn how to actually cook one of these suckers. Yes, it is my first time. Honestly, I am deathly afraid of them in their uncooked form. Artichokes (a.k.a. carciofi) are hard and prickly and rip open any grocery bag you attempt to put them in. On top of that, they have this mysterious part called the “choke,” which sounds horrible and is apparently hidden deep inside (ready to attack!). How could anyone eat something so threatening?! I mean, it’s an edible plant in the thistle family! Doesn’t that strike anyone else as odd? However, lucky for them, they are damn delicious. Hence, I’ve made a practice of paying someone else to deal with the cooking side of things. This is especially true when I am in Rome, where, due to some special additives in the water, they all know exactly how to make this (rather intimidating) vegetable taste like sliced (or steamed or fried) heaven. (Between you and me, I have a theory that the government is intentionally hiding the number of artichoke related deaths for nefarious artichoke eating purposes).
Today, I will attempt to overcome my fears and take the first step in learning how to prepare these dangerously delicious thistles (that is what they are people!). To do this, I am starting small. I am going to steam them.
Ten minutes later…
Ok, well I thought I was steaming, but it turns out I have misplaced my steamer, so, I am boiling. Good thing there are about 100 ways to cook an artichoke. Now, considering I have never even really handled, let alone cut, a carciofi in my life, I had to start with some research. I got some basic diagrams, rules, and guidelines from Simply Recipes, one of my favorites sites. Once I had mentally tackled the cooking section of the meal, I turned to the more familiar eating part. Now, to eat steamed or boiled carciofi, what you’re really talking about is sucking the “meat” off the leaves and to do this, you really need a dip, or perhaps multiple dips. For the dipping sauces, I turned to good old Martha, who suggested three different recipes. In the end, I made five. I think that is well below excessive.
Cooking. Check. Dips. Check. Ready.
Below is documented proof that in one night, with a little internet and some grit, you too can learn to tackle your greatest fears. If those fears include artichokes.
Step 1: Finding The Part That You CAN Eat
The hardest part about artichokes is wrapping your head around trimming. Basically, the outter leaves, their pointy tips, and the top of the artichoke are all apparently less than tasty. Every recipe you find will tell you to ditch them. At the markets during carciofi season the vendors will do this for you. Something that, at this stage in the process, I am wishing I had done. When you’re done, the thing you bought at the store will look like it went on a serious diet, but it will also poke you less.
Step 2: Cooking That Suckah
Once they’ve been trimmed, the artichokes can go into the pot of boiling water (or steaming water or hot oil). Simply Recipes suggests a slice of lemon, garlic, and a bay leaf in the water used to steam, so I went ahead and kept them in there even though I would be boiling. Once in the water, I took advantage of the free time to start pulling out all the ingredients I had that could possibly be recombined to create exciting sauces to dip the artichoke leaves in. While Martha only suggested one sauce with mayonnaise, I went ahead and made three: curry + mayo, garlic bits + mayo (careful on this one, it can pack a punch), and a simple mix of mayo + Dijon mustard + balsamic vinegar. The other two dips were melted butter + sage + a splash of lemon and olive oil + balsamic vinegar.
Step 3: The Dreaded Choke
Now, once you’ve cooked them and made your dips, you are ready to eat the carciofi, right? WRONG. It is important to remember that even cooked, the artichoke is a ticking time bomb. You begin to peel away those leaves, lost in the complex flavors and interactive eating fun, then BAM! You hit this prickly inner layer that is, as mentioned above, not so fun to eat. If you didn’t know any better, you might think this was the end of the artichoke eating experience and just toss the choke and stem in the trash. Careful! The very best part, the heart of the artichoke, lies below this prickly obstacle course. Metaphorically, is it brilliant. However, right about now, when you are this close to tasting your first victory, it is a pain in the a**. Keep calm. Take your knife and find the edge at the bottom of the choke (technically, it’s a collection of all the little undeveloped blossoms). When you do find the underbelly of the choke, cut along it horizontally, trying to lose as little of the heart as you can. When you’re done, it should look like the image below, on the right. Now dip, eat, and find out what all the effort was really for.
This meal involved ten artichokes, of which I probably really ate 4. The rest I simply dismembered to get to the heart. I only feel slightly bad about this. In that each artichoke only cost about .50 Euro cents. That is the beauty of vegetable seasons. The experiment could have been a complete and utter fail and it still would have only cost me 2 Euro. Thankfully, the success of this venture has motivated me to the next level in carciofi cooking: frying! Tune in next time! If there is a next time…. dun dun dun!!