When we begin peeling away the light purple-tinged inner leaves, the ones that rest gently on top of the hairy choke, all conversation stops and we both wait and watch for the unveiling. I usually cup the bottom of the artichoke in my left hand and with a knife in my right hand run the blade under the concentric bristles of the choke, lifting with what feels like enough pressure to release the choke from the heart in one rounded slice, but inevitably ending up with multiple pieces that I pinch and pull off the heart with my fingertips. As far as we're concerned, at least right now, it's one of the most captivating eating experiences there is. Think about it, you've just finished the leaves, grabbing them off from the base and scrapping the flesh and accompanying aioli off with your teeth, discarding the wounded petals into a separate dish meant just for them, a petal graveyard of sorts, and then waiting for you is the warm and delicate fleshy heart. It's an edible prize at the end of an edible hunt.
We've eaten five artichokes in the past two weeks, you could say we're on a streak or you could say we're making up for lost time considering those five artichokes are also the only artichokes we've steamed and eaten in the past ten years. I'll admit that until now I was intimidated by artichokes: I knew there was a heart and a choke - unsettling terms when dealing with a vegetable - and to get to either you had to do a lot of trimming and steaming. I was also scared off by the particular eating patterns demanded by an artichoke; it always seemed borderline inappropriate to clamp your teeth over the flesh while dragging the petal out of your mouth only to discard it in a communal bowl. The petals continue to pile until you get to the choke and the heart - the goal of all this eating - which is fabulous and great and everything, but what on earth do you do with either?
I was pretty content to leave the artichoke questions unanswered and to continue eating it in its more adulterated form, such as bubbling in a sea of mayonnaise and cheese. My mom makes great artichoke dip. She skips the trimming and petal tossing and buys little glass jars of artichoke hearts soaked in olive oil and seasoning. The pre-cooked and seasoned hearts make for easy work; simply chop them, toss them with parmesan cheese and just enough mayo to get the cheese and hearts to adhere before spooning into a casserole dish and topping with a layer of parmesan cheese that will brown and crisp in the oven. I wouldn't say it was a staple in our house, not like the Bonbel cheese wrapped in Pillsbury croissant dough and baked until the cheese seeps out the cracks, no it wasn't like that, but it did have the ability to linter at the party longer, which the pastry baked Bonbel did not have thank to my dad and brother, who unconcerned for the appetites of our guests would eat the cheese pastry themselves in ever competing slices. The artichoke dip never faced the same competition; it sat there with it's crispy crust waiting for chips or red pepper slices to break into its gooey under layer. Although people indulged and dipped there were often leftovers that I would spoon onto toasted sourdough bread the next day. Dip and leftover dip were the extent of my artichoke eating.
I was happy to continue eating easy-artichokes, but then we moved to Europe, which is a land of artichoke loving folk, and after my success jumping on the apricot bandwagon I figured I'd jump on the artichoke bandwagon as well. (Note that although I seem to a be the bandwagon-jumping type that I would never jump on a tuna fish sandwich wagon, nope, not ever).
The artichoke wagon might be full, but it's not full of young people, that's for sure. No, the people on the wagon look more like this...
a couple spotted at the market in Beaunne last December
a scene in Puglia (I forget what town) from April
So more than a confetti birthday cake to mark my upcoming plunge into old age, it seems that the artichoke sitting on my kitchen counter is, in its own way, a birthday token.
Why do we leave artichokes for old people? Are we scared that we might trim them wrong, or steam them for too long, or bare our teeth too much when eating the flesh? I'll admit that I was scared of the trimming part, terrified that I'd trim to much, but as it turns out that's pretty close to impossible. Our friends Aude and Rus shared an artichoke with us the other night and they admitted to being turned off my an incidence whereby an artichoke wasn't steamed for long enough. And then there was the artichoke we shared with our friend Jess who asked when we got to the hairy covered heart, "now what?"
Five artichokes in we've realized that you just need to plunge forward, with a few thoughts in mind: first, trim just enough so that you don't poke your fingers on the pointy petals and so that the globe fits in your steamer; second, it's better to cook for too long than too little so aim for 45 minutes, but check after 30 by sticking a knife in the base - if it goes in easily it's done; third, when the petals stop yielding meat as you get to the center, pluck them away to reveal the choke; and then, with the choke, slice at the base of the bristles, where bristle meats the heart and separate the hair from the heart however works for you, there is no wrong or right way, you just dont' want to eat it; and lastly, with the heart, simply slice and eat.
Oh, and a last thing, eat it with aioli, enough of this melted butter business.
// steamed artichoke with garlic aioli //
1 large globe artichoke
1 egg yolk
1 garlic clove, chopped
2 teaspoons grain mustard
squeeze of fresh lemon juice
pinch of salt and pepper
1/3 cup olive oil
Pour water in the bottom pot of a steamer and bring it to a simmer.
While the water is heating prep your artichoke. Remove any tough leaves around the base and and stem of the artichoke. Trim off the tips of the petals and then cut enough off of the top so that the artichoke fits in the pot. If yours came with a steam, pare it down with a knife until it the softer light green-white reveals itself. If the stem doesn't fit in the pot, you can cut it off and place it next to the head. Place the artichoke in the steamer basket, cover and steam for about 45 minutes, but check after 30 and continuing for longer if needed.
With the artichoke steaming away make the aioli. Place the egg yolk, garlic, mustard, lemon juice salt and pepper in a blender or the cup for your immersion blender and blend, adding the oil in a very slow drizzle, until all of the oil is incorporated and the aioli has thickened.