Sometimes an image, even one glimpsed very briefly, lodges itself in the mind and rests there for years before being recollected.
Such an image for me was an artichoke seller I glimpsed in passing on the outskirts of Palermo. He was standing next to his sedan, the open trunk of which was filled with small artichokes still secured to long branches, their enormous silvery leaves long and intact.
Additional bundles were lashed to the roof and the hood of the car, and the back seat was also crammed with these thorny vegetables of spring. The plants protruded from the windows into the April sunshine as if trying to escape.
Our seller was doing a brisk business, and I thought about the many housewives who would be making frittedda, the Sicilian stew of artichokes, fava beans and fresh peas that we had been eating as we traveled around the Sicilian coast.
Something of an oddball among vegetables, the artichoke keeps close edible botanical company only with cardoons. A good many vegetables have copious amounts of natural sugars, but not artichokes, and this is one of the things I like about them. They rough up the tongue a bit and intrigue it with hints of nuttiness mixed with an almost tart green vegetable quality.
Raw slices of artichoke will be offered as an appetizer in Tuscany; in my experience, they leave the mouth stunned and puckery for hours.
Further, being thistles, artichokes can have thorns, and they need more preparation than most vegetables.
Given all this, one might assume that this vegetable is a hard sell in a country where our national palate is decidedly sweet and we want our dinners to be cooked in no more than 20 minutes. Yet many of us love artichokes and welcome them every spring.
For all their individuality, artichokes are tremendously versatile, and I always find it somewhat surprising that this unusual vegetable is at home with so many different seasonings and preparations.
Browsing through cookbooks, one will find recipes that stew artichokes with lamb or veal, place them in a Tunisian or Moroccan couscous, use them as a condiment in a risotto or pasta or pair them with ricotta in the Ligurian Easter pie, torta pasqualina.
Recipes call for roasting, sauteing, frying, braising, steaming and even grilling them.
Dill, tarragon and rosemary are all equally compatible companions, and artichoke-friendly vegetables are simply what’s in season at the same time. Now, as in Sicily, it’s peas, fava beans, asparagus, green onions, fennel, delicate chervil, spinach.
In the fall when the second crop appears, it will be shallots, potatoes, leeks, fennel again, chard and more earthy rosemary. No matter the season, white wine, lemons, saffron, bay, tomatoes, oranges, olives, capers, anchovies all find a way with artichokes.
Here are a few simple dishes and one more complicated one that showcase the artichoke without frills, the better to enjoy its essential flavor. But do keep some of those other complementary seasonings in mind when you’re ready to play a bit.
Madison in the author of “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.”