The heart of the matter: It takes a lot of work to get to the best part of an artichoke

Steve Peters / Photo

Steve Peters

When it comes to artichokes, I’m just not convinced. It’s an unpopular opinion, perhaps, especially now, during the time of year when it’s best to buy them fresh. Yet, between the labor that goes into their preparation and the little you end up getting out of them, artichokes have failed to convince me they’re worth the trouble.

To prepare an artichoke, you have to take a series of tedious steps. First, you have to give it a good rinse to wash out any dirt from between the petals. Next, you pull off and discard the loose bottom leaves and trim the stem to about an inch long. That way, it can fit into your pot for cooking.

Some people recommend slicing about a third off the top of the artichoke, and I took the suggestion, although I’m not quite sure it was necessary. From there, you should trim the pointed tips off the petals with kitchen shears. The petals can be sharp, especially when you go to put them in your mouth. Finally, if you have large artichokes, you can slice them in half from top to bottom. If you can find smaller artichokes, they’re said to be more tender than the large ones and you can skip the halving.

When slicing one open, you’ll spot a streak of vibrant purple, as if your artichoke, when living, was once about to blossom into a flower. That’s because it was. Artichokes, at least the common globe artichoke we find in grocery stores, are the bud of an edible thistle plant. Though once it has blossomed, the plant is no longer edible.

Artichokes, like apples, will oxidize and turn brown fairly quickly. As soon as you cut them, you should dip them into a bowl of water with a splash of lemon juice. You’ll want to have that ready to go before you even get started.

I have to admit that I can’t recall ever cooking a whole artichoke before this weekend. But I’m not sure I was missing anything. I used the popular method of steaming to cook mine for what may be the first and last time. Artichokes may also be boiled, roasted or grilled.

To steam, I filled a large pot with an inch or so of water, tossed in my steamer basket, and placed the artichokes inside. I let them cook for 20 minutes before giving them a test. You can tell they’re done when the petals are easy to remove. After 20 minutes, they were more than ready. In fact, I probably overcooked mine and suggest if you’re going to steam yours, that you check them at 15 minutes.

To enjoy the petals of an artichoke you pluck them one at a time and dip them in something flavorful and a bit fatty, such as butter or an aioli, as the artichokes themselves have little flavor aside from a hint of earthy greenness. After dipping, you place a petal between your teeth and scrape out the miniscule amount of flesh there is to offer there. Then you grab another petal, dip and scrape, continuing on and on until there is nothing left but a weird fuzzy remnant.

If it’s the artichoke heart you’re after, there’s still some more work to be done. Now you have to remove that fuzzy thing, which is actually referred to as the choke. Just grab a spoon and scrape it off. Underneath is the heart, perhaps the most useful part of the entire thing. You can chop this up and use it however you like — in salads or recipes, such as the one below.

Maybe I’m missing some compelling reason why I should enjoy an artichoke. Maybe I cooked it wrong or went into it with the wrong attitude. Let me know if you think that’s the case. For now, I can’t be bothered to buy and cook these thistle buds fresh. The best part of the whole thing is the heart, and I never do this, but I suggest you save yourself the hassle and just buy a frozen package or jar of artichoke hearts instead.

There are plenty of ways to cook artichoke hearts. They pair well with lemon, onion and garlic. And I have to admit, I do like a good artichoke dip. This recipe, adapted from the Cooking Channel, is a fast and simple way to put them to use, especially if you buy a frozen package. Just be sure to use a dry white wine, as artichokes can alter the taste of wine and turn it sweet.

Shrimp & artichoke scampi

serves 4

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • ¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
  • 1 pound shrimp, peeled
  • 1 11-ounce package of frozen artichoke hearts, defrosted
  • ½ cup dry white wine
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ground black pepper, to taste
  • pasta of your choosing, cooked al dente
  • ½ cup shredded Parmesan cheese

In a large pan over medium heat, heat the oil. Add the garlic, onion and red pepper flakes and cook for about 5 minutes, lowering the heat if garlic starts to brown. Add the shrimp, artichoke hearts, wine, lemon juice and most of the parsley. Simmer until the shrimp are cooked through, about 5 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper, taste and adjust to your liking.

Serve over pasta, topped with the Parmesan and remaining parsley.

Steve Peters

Steve Peters is a cook, gardener and baker living in Rutland.

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