Spiky Vegetable Heaven: Artichokes

by Liz Caskey on August 22, 2011

Artichokes were not something I grew up eating. Occasionally, they showed up in a hot dip on the holidays, but fresh? Negative. I clearly remember the first time I was served a whole (cooked) artichoke. I was an exchange student in Santiago in 1997. My host mother, shocked that I had never consumed a fresh one, set off to the local feria that morning to buy a dozen and correct this horrid offense. Keep in mind that Chile, blessed with a mild, Mediterranean climate, has an abundance of fresh artichokes eight months per year. People grow up eating artichokes here.

As she unpacked the market bag, the artichokes seemed to resemble thorny flowers rather than anything remotely edible. I hovered over her as she carefully arranged them upright in a big pot. She poured in cold water and set them over the stove to gently steam them. She turned and said, “you’ll thank me for this”. I didn’t quite know how indebted I would be to her. After steaming, she let them cool to serve at room temperature. At dinner, she proudly presented this green regalo to me alongside a simple vinaigrette sauce and the option of homemade mayo with a touch of lemon.

My host family watched me intently, anxious for me to try the first bite. I smiled coyly. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that I didn’t have a damn clue as to how to even consider eating this spiky vegetable.

An uncomfortable silence arose. Finally, Quenita, the 15 year-old, muttered a low “Filo, no espero más,” which roughly translated meant, “to hell with waiting for this gringa to figure it out”. To my amazement, I watched as she plucked each leaf off, one by one, dipped them in the sauce, and scraped them against her teeth to pull off the “meat”. It’s good I waited. My technique would not have been that!!

All the scraping seemed like a lot of work for so little food. However I had not (yet) considered the taste involved (the whole point of making the work so worth it). I pulled. I scraped. I savored. It was, quite honestly, an epiphany for my palate. A sweet, floral, nutty, green, vegetable flavor danced and lingered followed by an earthy subtleness that can be only described as addictive.

I worked my way down to core as the leaves piled up in a bowl next to my plate. My host father motioned to grab a spoon and scoop out the furry choke in one swoop. I followed suit. I bit into the tender heart. The leaves had been one serious strip tease. Why hadn’t we just cut to the chase?! And there I sat, in artichoke heaven. A future artichoke fiend born. This baby had no remote relation to those cheesy, creamy dips I’d tried as a kid. Otra historia, as they say.

And since that moment, I’ve never gone back from fresh artichokes. Ever.

This weekend at La Vega, I did my little (cook) dance when my casero adorned my cart with a basket full of fresh baby artichokes. It was a signal from nature that spring is descending upon us. My time is here—artichoke season has begun! We may have had a freak snowstorm last Thursday in Santiago, but the warm temperatures and sunshiny days say otherwise. Spring is almost here!

So how I do I like my artichokes these days? Stripped down or nearly naked. I love to braise them with some white wine, lemon zest, maybe first caramelize some leeks or shallots, with a drizzle of olive oil. This weekend, I started with this base then added in some plump cherry tomatoes and flash-sautéed machas, razor clams, in Chilean pink garlic to toss with quinoa pasta and grated goat cheese (and a killer Sauvignon Blanc). I swoon for poached artichoke hearts that turn any old salad into something sacred. All in all, artichokes are amazing healthy, UNLESS you toss them in oodles of cream and cheese. Why do that? You just cover the flavor anyways and add unnecessary calories.

And, yes, they also double nicely as floral arrangements. Normally, I place them in a decorative bowl to admire their thistly beauty for a few days before subjecting them to my chef’s knife, heat, and stomach.

Don’t be intimated! Just go for it. Choose green chokes that are firm to the touch and weight. Then follow these simple instructions, courtesy of Simply Recipes, to navigate pairing and coring them. It’s a synch. After the first batch, you’ll be able to do it in your sleep, I promise.

{ 1 comment }

Hilary September 23, 2011 at 5:14 pm

Hi Liz,

Where do you get the baby artichokes? I am always looking for them in La Vega but never seem to find them. Maybe its timing?

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