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  • Therese Nugent

How To Eat An Artichoke

According to iconic San Francisco columnist Herb Caen, “An artichoke is the vegetable for people who love to eat mayonnaise.” Ah, but it is so much more. Rather exotic in both taste, texture and appearance, the artichoke is a unique vegetable that can be prepared and enjoyed a variety of ways including fried, roasted, stuffed, or simply steamed and dipped.


A member of the sunflower family, the artichoke is actually the flower bud of an edible thistle plant that is harvested before it blooms into a huge flower. The primary bud on the tip of the plant’s stalk is what is cultivated and what we eat. More than ninety per cent of artichokes are grown in Castroville on California’s Central coast. The crops thrive in the fertile farmland basking in the marine layer of gray clouds shading them from the bright sun inland. This notable farming town honored the soon-to-be-famous Marilyn Monroe its “Artichoke Queen” in 1948. The rest they say is history.


Although available year-round, artichokes are at their peak from January to April. Choose artichokes with tight, compact heads that feel heavy indicating moisture and hydration. Choose leaves that are consistently dark green. Avoid split leaves, brown spots, and purple mottling that signify a too mature vegetable. However, early in the season you’ll find artichokes that have been “frost kissed” or scarred. This discoloration is due to frost damage and only affects the appearance and not the flavor or quality of the choke. The globe artichoke ranges in size from baby to jumbo. Although a smaller head signifies a more tender vegetable, the rounder it is the larger its prized heart. An old wives’ tale says to rub the leaves of the artichoke between your fingers and if they squeak you have a particularly tender heart.


To eat a whole artichoke, pull off the leaves one by one and draw the base of the leaf through your teeth (tender side against the lower teeth) to remove the meaty pulp, discarding the tough remainder of leaf. After the leaves have been removed, scrape away the inedible prickly purple choke to expose the tender bottom, known as the heart, and cut into bite-size pieces. Eat with a fork, one bite at a time.


Artichokes are best steamed; be sure to use stainless steel or glass cookware (avoid aluminum, unlined copper, and cast iron) to prevent discoloration and metallic flavors. Before cooking, plunge artichokes up and down in a sink full of cold water to dislodge any debris trapped between the leaves. Steam the chokes over briskly simmering water in a tightly covered pot. A collapsible metal steaming basket works nicely because it fits the contour of your pot. I prefer to use my pasta pot that has a perforated steaming insert accommodating the large size of the artichoke, especially when I’m cooking several.


Be sure the water does not reach the vegetable. Keep the heat sufficiently high enough to generate steam and pressure. The natural size of the artichoke requires prolonged steaming to cook it properly; therefore, check periodically that the water has not boiled away. Simply replenish it if it has to keep the steaming method working properly. Test for doneness by tugging on one of the leaves. If it comes off easily, the artichoke is ready to eat. Cooking time is approximately 45 minutes.


Tip: Rubbing the edges of the trimmed leaves with fresh lemon will prevent discoloration. Soaking artichokes in acidulated water (water spiked with fresh lemon juice) for an hour or so before cooking will increase their tenderness and deepen their green color. Artichokes are hearty, even after harvested, and can be stored in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for up to one week. They’re loaded with potassium and vitamin A and entirely fat-free.


Interestingly, eating an artichoke creates a chemical reaction in the mouth that makes other foods taste sweeter. The compound cynarine found in the artichoke stimulates the sweetness receptors on the tongue. So when serving, pair the artichoke with more neutral-tasting foods. Wine experts are of the opinion that this sweet-inducing reaction can ruin the flavor of wine and it has long been recommended never to drink the beverage when eating an artichoke. However, it is my opinion that choosing a wine with high acidity, such as a Sauvignon Blanc or dry Riesling, can counteract the sweetening affect and pair very nicely with an artichoke.


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Steaming is the preferred method of cooking the globe artichoke. A tug on a leaf that comes away cleanly signifies a tender—and properly cooked-- vegetable.


Steamed Artichokes

Serves 4


4 large globe artichokes


1. Trim the artichokes. First, using a heavy knife, cut off the stem end flush with the bottom. Using a serrated knife, cut 1-inch off the top of each artichoke. Using kitchen scissors, cut off the remaining pointed tips of the leaves. Snap off the tough bottom row of leaves by bending them backward.


2. Place the artichokes upside down in a pot fitted with a steamer basket situated 2 inches over boiling water. Cover the pot and steam until the bottoms are tender and easily pierced, and an outer leaf is easily removed, approximately 45 minutes. Drain and serve hot or chilled.


Homemade Mayonnaise

Makes about 2 cups


2 egg yolks, at room temperature

2 teaspoons Dijon-style mustard

1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice

½ teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 ½ cups olive oil


1. In a small mixing bowl, using a sauce whisk, combine the egg yolks, mustard, lemon juice, sugar, and salt. Pour in the oil in a slow, steady stream while gently whisking at the same time. Continue to slowly whisk until the ingredients have emulsified into a thick sauce.

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