can’t help myself. When tiny wild pansies and little rosettes of gallinella start looking very serious indeed, my thoughts turn to what is about to grace our spring markets. Move over asparagus, fava beans, early tomatoes, and spring onions. Let the bouquets of artichokes unfold.
I can never get enough of these thistles once so dear to Catherine di Medici. I’ve prepared so many of these seductive bittersweet globes that I’ve learned easy and swift ways of getting them ready for any recipe.
Years ago, I discovered the importance of trimming and refrigerating artichokes just after purchase. I remove the leaves and stems (often woody, even when young) and cut them to leave only about 1/2-inch of stem. You can steam the leaves and teeth-scrape the tiny morsel of meat, but for me the luxury of a pared, ready-to-cook globe heart is part of the appeal.
So I’m ruthless. Leaves and stems, out! Onto the compost! Into the bin! Now you can get on with the good part.
Cold artichokes are more easily peeled and cut than at room temp. I remove the outside leaves down to the very tender, pale yellow ones and cut off the artichoke’s top half. At this point, I shower the leaves with lemon juice and place them in a plastic storage bag along with the squeezed lemon. There they stay for up to four days, darkening only slightly.
If you’re using the artichokes in a salad, it’s best to keep their lovely light greenness intact, which means clean them on same day you peel and pare. Color matters little if the goal is to sauté, sizzle, sauce or make into a sauce.
For a salad that serves four, put six prepared small, violettes or green artichokes on a cutting board, top side down (for stability) and stem side up. Slice each one very thin with an extremely sharp knife. If you haven’t removed enough leaves, discard the tough-looking ones and slice only the interior part of the prepared artichoke. Put the slices in a container and sprinkle lemon juice over them, grating a bit of the lemon zest into the mix and toss well with salt and pepper. Cover and refrigerate.
To assemble the salad, thinly slice a quarter pound piece (about the size of your fist, unless you’re a prize-fighter) of Parmigiano Reggiano, mix with the lemony artichoke slices, and toss with a good slosh of extra virgin olive oil, about one nice soup spoon per person (more lemon for a snappier salad). Add a snippet of fresh mint and a sprinkle of fresh pepper and voilá.
Another favorite of mine is to cut the prepared hearts into quarters or very thin slices and sauté them in olive oil with a couple of garlic cloves until crisp on the edges. Add a glass of white wine, some mint leaves, lemon juice, and cook until tender.
If you add a generous cup or two of chicken broth, these same sautéed artichokes can be puréed in a food processor or blender with a spoon of Parmesan and a large spoon of yogurt or mascarpone for a rich, savory low-calorie pasta sauce.
If you find Lilliputian artichokes (no bigger than golf balls), buy a kilo, pare down to the yellow as directed, cut in quarters, and toss in a paper bag with a cup of flour, a spoon of sweet paprika, and salt and pepper to taste.
Heat a cup of extra virgin olive oil until scalding, and sauté the artichokes until very crisp. Serve with lemon slices. A pinch of cayenne in the flour mixture will zip it up a bit to serve with drinks or as a side dish.
One of Barcelona’s best restaurants serves a similar dish of baby artichokes, fried crisp, with tiny fried sepione (octopus). You may add fried shrimp, calamari rings or even pieces of mozzarella to make a perfect fritto misto.
These raw, prepared artichokes may also be steamed until tender and stored in the fridge for up to a week for use in soups, sauces or simply as a puréed spread on little toasts with drinks.
When large Roman artichokes arrive in my market, I take off only one row of small outer leaves and stuff each remaining leaf with a Sicilian mixture of bread crumbs, olive oil, garlic, chopped anchovy and mint, which I then press between the leaves. Leave a bit of stem on the globes, and put the artichokes, stem down, in a large pot of salted boiling water (let the water up to the stems, where the leaves begin). Cover and steam for 45-minutes, depending on size, since of the larger ones take longer to cook.
My pièce de résistance is artichoke lasagna, divided thusly: A layer of fresh pasta for lasagna in a well-oiled baking dish; a layer of rich béchamel scented with nutmeg; a purée of artichoke made from the recipe (above) for cooked slices; a thin layer of ricotta, mixed with two egg yolks, salt and pepper and a pinch of cayenne; a layer of grated Parmesan (you then repeat the same layers).
Bake at 185C/350F for 30 minutes, then turn off the oven and leave the lasagna in the warm oven until serving time.
Stay tuned: I’m just getting started.