Green globe artichoke

I live 60 miles away from Castroville, California, the self-proclaimed artichoke center of the world. Yet on Wednesday I walked into a room full of eaters who had never tasted one. I was flabbergasted. Never eaten an artichoke?

Until this week I assumed every family grew up ritually sacrificing an artichoke in the spring. You remember, don’t you? Pulling it apart leaf by leaf, dipping it in a shared bowl of melted butter, scraping the morsel of earthy vegetable with your front teeth, savoring the richness. Your father, pocketknife in hand, carving up the artichoke heart with surgical precision. He scrapes out the tiny hairs of the choke and trims off the stem, while you and your siblings watch like expectant baby birds.

No? Not triggering any childhood flashbacks? Hmm.

an artichoke plant

an artichoke growing

A member of the thistle family, the artichoke is said to originate in southern Europe along the Mediterranean; the part we eat is actually an immature flower bud. Artichoke plants, if you’ve ever seen one, look practically prehistoric with their spiky vegetation, growing up to 7-feet-square and vaguely reminiscent of Vikings armed for battle with purplish-green maces in hand—

Which, in context, makes evading artichokes sound like a rational thing to do. How on earth does a person cook a vegetable that resembles a hedgehog?

Artichoke

Believe it or not, it’s the easiest thing in the world. For detailed instructions, allow me to refer you to Simply Recipes. But here is the quick and dirty:

  1. Rinse the artichoke. Trim off the stem. If the tips of the leaves are especially prickly, snip off the sharp barbs with scissors.
  1. Steam the artichokes in a large covered pot for about 30 minutes. Get creative if you like. Add lemon slices to keep the ’chokes a brighter shade of green. Add garlic cloves or a bay leaf for spice. Use a steamer insert if you have one—it helps keep the artichoke from getting mushy.
  1. Remember: An undercooked artichoke is a disappointment; an overcooked artichoke is a rarity, so air on the side of extra time. Be mindful of keeping enough water in the pan, however. I know from experience that artichokes do catch fire in a pan without water. If you want a smoky flavor, throw them on the barbecue.
  1. Meanwhile prepare your dip. I’m a traditionalist, opting for the classic drawn butter; heart healthy it is not. I’ve heard other households use mayonnaise, which sounds downright disrespectful to my sensibilities. This week we tried homemade balsamic vinaigrette, and that was a tasty, lighter alternative. But Paula Deen and I still vote for butter.

Artichokes are notoriously difficult to pair with wine I learned in a fancy meal that included a wine pairing with each course. But, the sommelier confided with a wink, a dry Riesling should do the trick. There. Now go impress your friends.

Artichoke in the sunlight

And, lest you think we’ve covered all the ground around artichokes, this post would be incomplete without inspiration from Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Read on.