New Englanders do not have a ton of experience seeing artichokes outside of a can. As artichokes appear more often in grocery stores, though, home chefs coming across these intimidating-looking spiky orbs may be curious about how to prepare them.
Artichokes are the immature flower bud of a thistle plant native to Mediterranean regions. The buds look scaly and spherical, with green petal-like structures layered on top of one another, often tipped with thorns. The artichoke consists of the stem, the petals, the hairy “choke” and the tender, delicious heart concealed by its fibers.
“There’s very little historical reference for artichokes here in Maine,” said Rob Dumas, food science innovation coordinator at the University of Maine. “They’re more or less vacant from the northern New England scene until modern agriculture brought them here.”
Stephanie Enjaian, culinary arts department chair at Kennebec Valley Community College, said there are some tricks to making this vegetable palatable, starting with how you clean it.
“To clean an artichoke it does [require] an understanding of the science of the artichoke itself and how you use the different parts,” Enjaian said. “Dirt can get inside the leaves, and you don’t want to eat that, so you’re going to have to soak it. Also, insects can get in there.”
Dumas said that there are two main schools of thought when it comes to preparing artichokes. The first is to steam or boil the whole artichoke, either in a steamer basket or a pot of salted boiling water for about 25 to 30 minutes. Enjaian did warn, though, that boiling can have its aesthetic disadvantages.
“Artichokes will darken during cooking if they’re not completely covered with salted water,” she explained. “The alkalinity causes artichokes to turn an unappetizing color.”
Once the artichoke is boiled or steamed, though, you and your fellow diners can sit around the table removing leaves and dipping the bottoms of the leaves in a sweet sauce — he recommended lemon butter — while you strip the meat with your teeth.
“There’s a little tender white part there that you can kind of scrape off with your teeth,” Dumas said.
Then, you can take the delicious, cooked artichoke heart and dip it in your sauce, or Dumas said you can save it to mix in pasta or top a pizza.
The second primary method of preparing an artichoke centers around the quest for the delicious artichoke heart through peeling and paring the rest of the artichoke away. Dumas and Enjaian both said that learning to prepare an artichoke this way is often a challenging, time-consuming culinary school rite of passage.
“I spent a lot of time when I was learning French classic cuisine peeling artichokes,” Dumas said. “Peeling an artichoke is something that takes a little dexterity.”
Enjaian warned that artichokes can be prickly as well.
“Some people will wear gloves to protect themselves when cutting it,” Enjaian said.
Start by holding the artichoke in one hand and a sharp paring knife in the other and cutting away all the tough, green parts until you get down to the “pedestal” or base of the artichoke. Rub the base with lemon or put it in a bowl with lemon water and vinegar to avoid oxidation.
Then use a spoon and scoop out the feathery choke.
“You’ll discover it is attached fairly lightly to the heart so you want to be careful that you don’t scrape out the heart at the same time,” Dumas said. “You’re left with something that looks kind of like a top. The center of the stem is actually fairly tender as well. You want to peel away the tough green exterior and preserve the lighter green interior.”
Once you have little artichoke hearts, there is a lot you can do with them. Shave the raw heart thinly into a salad, or fry the thin sleeves into artichoke crisps. Marinate the artichokes in olive oil and spices and set them out on a cheese platter. Or, make the classic spinach and artichoke dip with your fresh artichoke hearts.
Enjaian said that often, though, canned artichoke hearts are perfectly palatable — as well as more cost and time-efficient — substitutes for the fresh ones, especially for things like dips, pastas and pizzas.
“That is probably one of the top things that I do cheat on. I’ll get canned artichoke hearts,” she confessed.
Dumas agreed but said that learning how to prepare an artichoke is sort of a rite of passage for even home chefs.
“The yield is pretty minimal [and] you’re going to put in a good bit of work preparing fresh artichokes versus buying canned, but it’s good skill, a cook’s crucible kind of thing,” Dumas said. “Artichokes are fun. You should try them at least once.”