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Dressing up artichokes: there’s beauty in the beast

October 14, 2009


(article of mine, published in the Los Altos Town Crier Food & Wine Oct. 14, 2009)

I’ve often wondered how we ever came to eat artichokes. What peculiar impulse compelled someone to pick through a prickly, tightly-shuttered globe of leaves and a thicket of bristles to find that prize, the artichoke heart? Whose idea was that?

In the first century AD, Pliny the Elder described the artichoke as “one of the earth’s monstrosities.” I can see why.

On the other hand, the artichoke is a flower, which, if permitted, develops into an extravagant violet-blue thistle bloom; Queen Catherine de Medici reputedly craved the food and introduced it to the French after marrying their Henry; and in 1947, Marilyn Monroe was crowned the first Artichoke Queen in our own artichoke homeland, Castroville.

Clearly there is a beauty to Pliny’s beast.

As artichoke season ends, another queen, Julia Child, American queen of French cooking, has inspired me to dress up the artichoke with—what else?—interesting sauces.

Growing up in France, I ate artichoke leaves dipped in vinaigrette or homemade mayonnaise. Unwittingly, I was straddling a molecular divide. Oil-based vinaigrette is simple: vinegar droplets suspended in oil. The egg emulsions responsible for mayonnaise and its cousins are more complex. Whisking must coax egg yolks to act as binding agents and join two otherwise immiscible liquids into a uniform cream. Cooked varieties, like hollandaise, must be coddled lest they curdle. These concoctions, delicate and velvety, are finery in the sauce world—an elegant set of pearls. Artichokes need seek no other adornment.

But sauces also offer alluring variations. Artichokes’ mild, metallic flavor responds to an acidic tang, a peppery flare, or the boldness of garlic or chili flakes. So stir up a hollandaise with white wine and lemon juice; turn vinaigrette silky with a dollop of Dijon; whisk balsamic vinegar, chili pepper or paprika into a homemade mayonnaise, or upgrade it to aioli (with garlic) or rouille (with garlic, saffron and cayenne).

Flecks of fresh herbs such as parsley, thyme or chives are also wonderful additions for both color and flavor.

This is your chance to perfect your emulsions. Make Julia proud.

The sauce inspiration led me to another dress-up discovery by way of Artichokes Benedict. Bathed in hollandaise sauce, a poached egg sits on a steamed artichoke’s heart (choke and inner leaves scooped out) rather than on an English muffin. On all sides the crenellated outer leaves rise up.

The same “basket” presentation makes a regal display for shrimp, salmon, crab, or lobster salad, drizzled with lemon juice, studded with capers or kalamata olives. It may seem counter-intuitive to pair seafood with a plant I think of as so earthy, but the combination is divine.

Sauces and “baskets” showcase the whole artichoke. But many recipes incorporate its parts beautifully in other ways. Halved baby artichokes can fan across pizzas or savory tarts. They are on excellent terms with cheese, particularly Swiss, goat, or parmesan. Morsels of the heart add novelty to risotto or pasta and work as well with tomato as with cream sauces. As artichoke season comes to an end, you can even freeze the hearts for later use in a pureed soup with potatoes, leeks, shallots and thyme.

One note of caution: Now that artichokes will grace your most elegant feasts, be careful when choosing a wine. Cynarin, one of the plant’s phenolics compounds (which also account for its antioxidant properties and its astringency when raw), makes things taste sweeter. Opt for a dry white.


One Comment leave one →
  1. January 30, 2010 5:10 pm

    Speaking of artichokes, for Christmas my aunt created a creamy, earthy artichoke soup that impressed my mother (an artichoke lover) and me (the kitchen minion) with its honest flavor. We used the whole artichoke (maybe six medium, for eight small bowls of soup), boiling them first, then stripping the leaves down and getting rid of the choke and inner, spiky leaves. The hearts were chopped, and about a quarter were reserved. The artichoke leaves, the majority of the heart, and a cup or so of leeks cooked in a little broth until, well, the kitchen smelled delicious (20-30 minutes, I think, but I was distracted by other tasks at the time, like stuffing duck breast with apples and chestnuts. I love Christmas at my aunt’s house). The soup was pureed with an immersion blender, and then pushed through a sieve. The reserved chopped artichoke heart was sauteed to golden and crispy and adorned the final dish. It took a little work, but the reward was far worth it. Our only complaint was that there wasn’t more to go around.

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