Baby artichokes, each cut in half, hang drying on a clothesline stretched across my kitchen. Artichoke leaves overflow the table and cascade across the floor. Dozens of meticulously trimmed large artichokes poised in enormous metal bowls look like green roses. I’m celebrating spring and the arrival of artichoke season by cooking every single artichoke preparation in my beloved 1961 “Larousse Gastronomique.”
Why? Partly because sometimes the best way to really understand an ingredient -- and the artichoke is a prickly one -- is to face it down. And partly because the three-page list of 15 preparations (plus sauces) in the classic French culinary encyclopedia is amazing in its breadth.
Larousse on artichokes is a wonderful exercise in understatement. Any time you find a recipe that begins, casually, with the phrase “pare and trim uniformly 100 small artichokes of the same size,” you know you’re in a world of high expectations.
I start trimming, pulling off the coarse outer leaves and lopping off the stems. It’s an oddly liberating experience, once you find the rhythm to it. How often do you find yourself wantonly throwing leaves across the kitchen floor?
These will become artichokes a la grecque. Into a large pot on the stove go water, olive oil, herbs, salt, a bouquet garni and “the juice of 10 lemons strained through a muslin bag.” Again the understatement.
Once this comes to a rolling boil, in go the 100 baby artichokes for 8 to 10 minutes. Then all 100 of them, plus the liquid they’ve been cooked in, go into a handy “large earthenware crock” to cool their heels.
Meanwhile, I attend to the first of a series of “whole boiled artichoke” recipes. Trimming the big ones requires a sharp knife and a supple wrist to cut through the top third. Into another vat of boiling water they go. Then into a bath of cool water and then the refrigerator. And then my next-door neighbor’s refrigerator.
At this point, I check on my earthenware crock and whip up the four sauces -- mayonnaise, mustard, tartare, vinaigrette -- that Larousse suggests for cold, boiled artichokes. Then I make the five suggested sauces for the hot, boiled artichokes: butter sauce, white sauce, cream sauce, hollandaise and mousseline. When all nine sauces sit happily in their sauce boats, the earthenware crock is suitably cool. It should be; it’s 3 a.m.
My neighbors are all asleep, so I have a gorgeous late-night snack. The artichokes are velvety -- perfect, and the sauces offset the fine, almost metallic taste of the leaves. The heart, once revealed, is a serene pleasure. The chilled artichokes are glorious with the mayonnaise or simple lemony vinaigrette. Hot, the traditional hollandaise is my hands-down favorite, the velvety sauce a dip into old-fashioned hedonism.
The next morning, after a fitful night spent dreaming of -- you guessed it, artichokes -- I can my 100 baby artichokes in Mason jars and set them on the windowsill to cool. Next up: dried artichokes.
I don’t know about you, but my experience with dried artichokes is, well, nonexistent. But it sounded interesting, and I had another 100 smaller artichokes in a bag under the table. Larousse wasn’t specific, but I decided it made sense to do the smaller artichokes rather than the giant globes I had in another bag, especially as they had to all fit in a tray in the oven. Well, ovens. By now I’d enlisted my other next-door neighbor. I told both I was catering an event for an artichoke festival.
So, trim another 100 artichokes, medium to small size, again uniformly. I wonder at how routinely I now think, “one hundred artichokes.” Blanch them for five minutes in unsalted water, and put them in a 200-degree oven for three hours to simulate the sun that isn’t shining.
Into the larger artichokes go duxelles, which I made in my spare time by cooking down enormous quantities of mushrooms with a little shallot and butter, until it resembled a kind of earthy pate. To the duxelles I add bacon and parsley, then I fill the cavities of one row of artichokes with the mixture, wrap each with bacon and tie them up with kitchen twine. Into a saute pan they go with some stock and wine to braise for an hour.
So that’s barigoule, which, I learn when I flip forward 50 pages into Larousse, is so named for the mushroom traditionally used for the duxelles. Eating them is like unwrapping a box and finding a wonderfully rich present inside.
A la diable is far easier: Just stuff them with a simple breadcrumb-caper mixture and let them roast in a pan with olive oil.
Out of the oven come the dried artichokes, making way for a la diable. While they roast, I use a quilting needle to thread the delicate buds like a string of enormous beads and then tie them to my pot rack to dry -- overnight in the summer maybe, but with these rains it ends up taking three or four days. But it’s worth it. Not only do I have a kitchen worthy of a horticulturist, but they last for months and will be fabulous in stews.
I pull out the roasted a la diable. They’re rich and mellow, the tips crunchy, the capers and garlic giving a depth of flavor that marries wonderfully with the artichokes themselves.
By now it’s Sunday: the final day of my artichoke celebration and time for the easy dishes.
First up: artichokes Clamart. The smallest purple artichokes are trimmed and thrown into a saute pan, so quickly they don’t even need lemon juice to safeguard their ephemeral beauty. Butter, English peas and shredded romaine lettuce go in after them, a little water, salt and sugar, and they simmer gently and briefly.
Served in the same pan they were cooked in, in deference to their fragility, they look like rosebuds on a bed of leaves. And though garden peas sound like they wouldn’t stand up to the artichokes’ assertive flavor, they magically bring out their sweetness.
More of the baby purple guys go into another pot, this time with tiny baby carrots, their stems still intact, for artichokes Crecy. And for the last variation, artichokes mirepoix, the purple buds go into a pan on a bed of finely chopped carrots, onions, celery and ham moistened with wine and stock and, at the end, with fresh parsley. When my neighbors arrive for an impromptu Sunday lunch, they are astonished by the bounty, all with flavor that tastes like early spring.
Sunday night. The ovens off, the clothesline swinging. I cooked Larousse’s entire entry, and it only took about 300 artichokes. I open one of the Mason jars and eat a few of the preserves, fresh from their coriander-infused brine, with some crusty bread. They’re mellow, tender, yet still have enough heft to stand up to the bread and to hold their own in the Provencal saute I’ll throw them in later.
The dried artichokes will go into braises and stews, but months from now, when they’re gone from the stores and the market stalls. When I’ll probably dream again of artichokes. But not for the want of them.