Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Artichoke ~ One of Nature's Most Misunderstood Vegetables

Think you're an expert on vegetables?  

Have you ever eaten an artichoke?

As far as vegetables go, the globe artichoke is probably one of the weirdest ones people have ever eaten.  No one really knows where they came from, but once they found their way into Europe, they spread throughout the land - Italy, France, Holland, England....  And of course, they ended up coming to the New World.

Most of the artichokes you'll find in the produce section of your grocery store probably come from California.  They're a bit strange to eat, a little fussy to prepare, and many people shy away from this strangest of strange vegetables.  It's much more common to see people using canned artichoke hearts in cooking rather than attempting to eat the entire thing.   

However, I'm going to show you a very easy way to prepare artichokes, step by step. And all you need is a couple of these strange vegetables, a clove of garlic, pepper, olive oil, and a 3-quart saucepan.
I'm not sure I'd classify artichokes as my favorite vegetables, but they're toward the top of the list.  They're messy to eat, but if you get a good one (big, meaty and flavorful), it's a delight.

First, using a serrated knife, cut the stem and the bottom leaves off the artichoke.  You'll then need to pull off the smaller leaves around the base of the heart, as these tend to be kind of tough, bitter, and don't have much "meat" on them.  You'll have to also trim around the heart where you pulled the leaves off.

Next, cut about a half inch to three-quarters of an inch (depending on the size of your vegetables) off the top of the artichoke.  You'll then use either the serrated knife or kitchen shears to trim the tips off the remaining leaves.  Trust me, you want to do this, unless you want to poke your finger on the claw-like prickers when you're eating it.  You'll likely poke yourself a couple times during the preparation too.

For flavoring, slice the garlic clove into four or five small pieces and slip each one between the leaves of the artichokes.  You can also use garlic powder (just a light sprinkling on top) in a pinch, but the flavor is much better if you actually use a garlic clove.

Once you've finished battling these vegetables' self-defense systems, put just a little bit of olive oil on the bottom of your pan and place the artichokes inside.  Flavor with fresh cracked black pepper and drizzle the top with olive oil.  Fill the pan with water halfway up the sides of the artichokes. You can also sprinkle about a teaspoon of salt in for flavoring.  Set the pan on the stove, covered, and bring it to a boil.  Once it reaches the boil, reduce the heat all the way down to low.

Artichokes require an extremely long, slow cooking.  You need to allow at least an hour and a half for cooking, closer to two hours if your vegetables are on the large side.  Trust me, the longer you let the artichokes cook, the better.  Artichokes are perhaps the only vegetables in the world that cannot be overcooked.  At least, I have never gotten to that point.  The longer you cook artichokes, the more tender they become.  It's a beautiful thing.

As the artichoke cooks, it will take on an olive green color.  To see if your artichokes are done, pierce the heart with a knife.  If it goes in easily, it's done. At least, that's what all the cookbooks say.  I personally have never had to test my artichokes this way.  I just cook and cook and cook them till the outer leaves start coming off.

Serving your artichokes is pretty easy.  Just spoon them out into serving bowls and drizzle a little of the cooking juices over the top.  If you've followed my advice and cooked these vegetables for at least 90 minutes, they'll be so tender that the outer leaves will just fall off.

Eating an artichoke is tricky and messy too.  I've read that artichokes can be served cold but I like them best hot from the pan.  You can eat the meat on the outer leaves by pulling each one off and scraping the bottom half of the leaves with your teeth.  It does take some practice.  Once you reach the inner leaves, they are sometimes so tender you can just bite the meaty part off the bottom.  After a while, and a few tender fingertips later, you'll start seeing some purple on the leaves and they'll have gotten rather small.  Don't eat those.  With a knife or a fork, carefully lift the baby leaves off to reveal the hairy choke.  This is not edible - the choke is the thistle part of these vegetables.  Scrape the choke off the heart (again, this takes some practice to do well) and discard. Then slice up the heart and enjoy with a little salt and pepper.

Unfortunately, I was too engrossed in enjoying these yummy, weird vegetables to take pictures of the process.  Next time!

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