It may look intimidating, but beneath the thorny exterior, the artichoke is richly flavored, nutritious and totally worth the trouble.
An artichoke sliced in half, exposing the fuzzy choke
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
The one time I went to Rome, I didn't eat artichokes. (I didn't eat much pasta either, but that's another story.) Wandering through Italy's golden, sunlit afternoons, I held my breath as I gazed at the ruins of the Colosseum and dipped my fingers in the Trevi Fountain. I drank countless cups of cappuccino in the morning and swilled strong shots of espresso in the hot afternoons. There were probably a lot of pastries and cold glasses of wine. But no artichokes.
To be honest, this was not so much because I couldn't bear to sit still long enough to linger over lunch as it was because I hadn't yet come to appreciate that thistle-y vegetable that's so endemic to Rome – artichoke dishes graced menus of nearly all of those restaurants crammed along the side streets of town – and to Italy as a whole. Zucchini sauteed in good olive oil until soft and sweet? Piles of gnocchi in an onion-flecked tomato sauce? Yes, please. But hold the artichokes.
I had never liked the way they tasted, though that could be because I'd eaten them mainly as garnishes on pizza and not in their natural state. I didn't like the way they looked; I didn't even like their color. As a vegetarian who eats a lot of vegetables, and as a native Californian, this is deplorable – if artichokes are emblematic of Rome, they could also be called the quintessential California vegetable, preferring a marine climate and frost-free areas with cool, foggy summers (if you've visited Northern California, you know summers are infuriatingly chilly).
The first artichokes grown in the United States were planted in the 1890s by immigrant Italian farmers in Half Moon Bay, Calif., about 30 miles south of San Francisco. In time, nearby Castroville became the nation's leading producer; it has an artichoke festival every May to celebrate the vegetable's first season of the year (a perennial, the plant comes into season during both spring and fall).
Fortunately, artichoke inspiration finally struck this winter during a sunny trip to central California. Highway 1 taken south winds along the rocky coast past empty stretches of beach and sand dunes to the right, with miles of neatly planted artichoke fields to the left. It seemed ridiculous that I'd never developed a penchant for artichokes, much less cooked them. Was I being disloyal to my home state? I'd learned to love the Brussels sprout — surely I could also love to the funny-looking artichoke.
Oh, but it takes work to cook an artichoke, and there are so many other things to do instead: beets to roast, cauliflower to devour, Brussels sprouts to fall for.
Preparing an artichoke for eating is a bit more time-consuming than just throwing a myriad of seasonal vegetables into the oven with a splash of olive oil and salt. Yet often the best things aren't easy, and so it is with artichokes. A little labor results in a major payoff – beneath its thorny exterior lies a heart that's soft, almost sweet and utterly delicious.
Back home in San Francisco, though, I tried to forget my inspiration, preferring instead to stuff myself with spring's first asparagus (I dearly love asparagus). But on the afternoon of the first day of spring, I grabbed a clutch of artichokes, took up my sharpest knife and tried to figure out how to start.
Having never cooked an artichoke, I was slightly intimidated – the thing seems almost impenetrable. Nonetheless, I went boldly forth (after carefully reading instructions on how to attack it), slicing and peeling and occasionally catching my fingers on the thorny leaves. I really had to work at it, too – those things are pretty tough and aren't always easy to open. Finally, though, I made some progress. I found the inner leaves to be pale green and softer the closer I got to the artichoke's heart; the biggest surprise was that as I peeled away the leaves, I found a fuzzy flower inside. Called the "choke," the flower resembles a thistle, its downy, purplish strands touched with yellow.
There are so many ways to eat artichokes: blanched, steamed, grilled, stuffed, marinated. Hearts can be tucked into frittatas or souffles; leaves can be roasted and used as vehicles for herbed aioli or a decadent garlic-butter sauce. As an added attraction, artichokes are high in vitamin C, folate, fiber, potassium, phosphorus and magnesium.
Look for artichokes that are a deep green, with tightly closed leaves. Keep fresh lemons handy to rub on the vegetable once you cut it – this helps prevent browning – and to add to cooking water. Artichokes are best cooked when they're very fresh, but can be stored for a few days in the fridge. In a pinch, frozen artichoke hearts are acceptable, though fresh is always better.
Maybe, as Pablo Neruda wrote in the poem "Ode to the Artichoke," the best way to eat an artichoke is to cook and immediately peel away its leaves one by one (perhaps doused in sweet butter) until you reach its heart, which can then be slowly savored:
With a tender heart
Dressed up like a warrior,
Standing at attention, it built
A small helmet ...
Scale by scale
We strip off
The peaceful mush
Of its green heart
That's tempting stuff, although I'm rather partial to an artichoke-spinach soup myself.