I've never really understood artichokes. I'll admit it. Packed in vinegar they're just another pickled vegetable for the antipasti plate, canned they are just tasteless bits of texture to add to pasta, and blended into dips, well, to be quite honest I'm not quite sure why they are present at all.
Until recently, I could recount exactly two great artichoke experiences. Like many of my best vegetable experiences (if they ever have the Russian winter vegetable salad on the menu, order it) one took place at the Winds Cafe in Yellow Springs. It was very early in the springtime and we were having dinner with one of Husband's mentors in the wine world and his wife, and our table was sent a platter of fried baby artichokes. These were tiny - the size of a baby's fist - and were on long stalks. The entire vegetable had been dipped in cornmeal and fried, and was served with some sort of caper remoulade, if memory serves me.
I remember eating one and being very pleased, indeed - this is the closest I've come to getting the artichoke! I said to Husband. In the back of my mind, though, I was aware this might have more to do with the use of a fryer and mayonnaise.
Also, once upon a time when I was a child, my mother prepared steamed artichokes, along with a zesty butter and vinegar dipping sauce on the side; one plucked a spiny leaf, dipped it in the sauce, and then scraped the thick part of the leaf with one's teeth. As a budding child gourmande I thought it was fabulously decadent and fancy.
But still, it seemed more of a device to get butter sauce to my mouth.
So it was, when Chef David Tanis came to town last week, I resolved to ask him to explain to me what it is about artichokes.
I explained my ambivalence to artichokes and asked what I was missing? Ever chef I respect seems to adore artichokes, and waxes poetic about them as a seasonal delight.
Chef Tanis laughed and said that for him, a lot of it had to do with being in Italy. He recounted a story of spending time with an older woman in Italy. They'd had a large lunch and when they began discussing dinner, the Italian woman said "oh, I'm not very hungry. I think I'll just have an artichoke for dinner." Artichokes, he said, were a staple in Italy. Every store has a basket of them out front, and they are the vegetable preferred above all others.
Chef Tanis encouraged me to buy a few artichokes, and prepare the hearts very simply - just a little olive oil, salt and pepper," he said, "and I dare you not to like them."
One thing I found very charming about Chef Tanis was his dismissal of the notion that we couldn't find a good artichoke in Ohio - "I've found good artichokes in a Safeway in New Jersey. You can find perfectly good artichokes anywhere." Even though I of course embrace local foods, I grow weary of the idea that one can't get "anything good" in Ohio - one can't find good sushi, or good fish, or good oysters, etc. And yet, I had the best oyster of my life in San Francisco, and it had been flown there from the East Coast of Canada. I've had amazing fish here in Columbus, flown in overnight from the Honolulu Fish Company or purchased at Tokyo's Tsukigi fish market and picked up at Port Columbus. The notion that chefs or grocery stores in Columbus can't source great ingredients simply because we are landlocked is pure silliness. Consider yourself lectured.
At any rate, the other day I was strolling though the produce section and recalled the words which had been haunting me since meeting Chef Tanis: "I dare you not to like them."
I picked up two and fancied myself as the Italian woman - I really want to be the sort of woman who says "oh, I'm not very hungry, I think I'll just have an artichoke."
I won't go into details about the proper cleaning of artichokes, because the wonderful ladies at The Kithcn have done a great job and there's no need to reinvent the pictorial tutorial they've already put together. I trimmed mine down a bit more than they did, ending up with just the heart and a bit of stem.
I opted out of the acidulated water part of the preparation, because I wanted to taste the true flavor of the choke, with no acidity. I wouldn't recommend this if you are going to prepare the chokes for a group, because they turn brown with amazing swiftness, but it was just me, and just lunch.
Artichokes can be eaten raw and really don't require cooking, so I let this inform my preparation by simply sauteeing the chokes briefly in hot butter (in a nonstick pan), just to get bits of them brown and crisp. I added a good bit of salt and really just tossed them around until they looked like I wanted to eat them. All told, they were in the pan less than 3 minutes.
I ate the first batch straight from the pan, but refrained long enough to photograph them on the second go-round.
They were delicious. Firm and very slightly starchy, they tasted much nuttier than I thought - very much like salsify, another sadly underrated vegetable here in the US. The butter set them off wonderfully, as did the salt. I can't imagine why we so frequently cover up their taste and texture by overcooking, canning, brining, pickling, or pureeing them into dips. They really are so wonderful just on their own.
Cleaning the chokes took about 2 minutes each - really not that bad in the scheme of things. True, there is waste if you are only using the hearts, and it seems like a lot of work in theory, but it isn't. Simply snap off the tough leaves, then cut the choke across, lengthwise, scoop out the chose, and then do a bit of peeling. That's all.
Working in the kitchen, learning to cook - or re-learning to cook - is largely about confronting fears and misconceptions. Artichokes had always seemed like a huge worthless pain to me - so much work for so little reward. But in truth they take no more work than peeling and chopping a carrot. Learning to love something new is well worth the reward.