You can keep your artichokes a la barigoule and your baby ones shaved thin and fussed over with olive oil on a plate. Sure, barigoule is delicious, stuffed with mushrooms, ham, bacon and parsley, braised in white wine and finished with butter. And I love eating shaved artichokes -- in a restaurant.
But lately when I see those big, fat, gorgeous, screamingly fresh artichokes piled up on the tables at the farmers market -- abbondanza! -- all I want to do is whack off their long stems, boil them and serve them in their most classic preparation: artichokes vinaigrette.
Isn’t that what we all like to do with them, really, when the chips are down and the season’s at its peak? There’s nothing like pulling off those succulent leaves, dipping them in dressing -- or melted butter, or olive oil, or (why not just admit it?) mayonnaise -- and scraping the flesh with your teeth.
There’s something so sensual about the whole process; it’s almost like a dance. As you stack up the leaves on the side of the plate (or you fling them into a communal bowl), the new leaves get more tender and toothsome the further into the thistle you go, until finally you’re pulling them off by the handful, almost eating them whole. You pull the prickly pinkish, then almost purple parts off. Scrape the silk off the crown (a teaspoon works best). Then cut into the crown and savor every fleshy morsel, dipping it into the vinaigrette. Or the mayonnaise.
In the crown, you get the artichoke’s marvelous flavor distilled -- that distinctive, almost grassy flavor that’s such a tease in the leaves. How perfect that you can’t have it till you’ve earned it by working your way through them.
The big globe artichokes are lovely to share a deux, or to set out as an appetizer before anyone sits down. But they’re even more satisfying eaten alone, at a fully set table, as a main course.
The classic artichoke starter, what you’d find in a bistro in Paris, is artichaut vinaigrette; the sauce is a simple one made with red wine vinegar, a little Dijon mustard, good olive oil, some chopped shallots, maybe some chervil and parsley.
But a friend lately found herself with some leftover “house vinaigrette” she had made from Thomas Keller’s cookbook “Bouchon.” It’s simplicity itself -- just red wine vinegar, canola oil and lots of Dijon mustard. Keller doesn’t even include salt or pepper, but curiously, it doesn’t need it. At any rate, because of the technique -- it’s whirred first in a blender with just half the oil, then the rest is whisked in -- it has an ultra-creamy consistency, like something between a vinaigrette and a mayonnaise. It’s a perfect dip for artichokes.
Another friend told me her trick: Stir a generous squeeze of Meyer lemon into some Best Foods mayo. It takes the industrial edge off the mayo, and you can make it as thick or thin as you want. The Meyer lemon flavor is perfect with the ‘chokes.
So how best to cook those puppies? The artichoke world is divided into those who steam and those who boil. At the Santa Monica farmers market shopping for ‘chokes, I scanned the crowd, looking for French chefs who might shed some light on the classic preparation.
I found two: Bruno Lopez, chef de cuisine at the Hotel Bel-Air and Alain Giraud of Four Stars Private Cuisine. I asked them what they could tell me about artichauts vinaigrette.
The late French comic Coluche once pointed out, Giraud said, that an artichoke is the only food that the more you eat it, the more you have on your plate.
Well, yes, that’s true. But should you boil them or steam them? I wondered aloud.
“The housewife boils it,” said Giraud; the two chefs agreed this was right and proper.
Anything but salt in the water? It’s commonly said a little lemon juice keeps the color nice and bright.
“Some chefs don’t use lemon,” said Giraud. “There’s no problem if it’s darker and a little oxidized.”
“The flavor’s better” without it, said Lopez. “It’s the natural taste of the artichoke.”
In the Times Test Kitchen, we tried steaming and boiling, using the jumbo-size green globe artichokes from Sun Coast Farms, with their long stems still attached.
To prepare them, start by cutting off the stem at the base, making it flush, so the artichoke doesn’t wobble on the plate. (The stems are delicious, by the way; pare off the hard outer skin, then cook them any way you like. I’d slice and saute them and toss them with pasta and olives.) Then pull off the small outer leaves at the base, trim the bottom, use kitchen shears to cut the points off the remaining leaves and cut off the top with a big knife.
Steaming (in salted water) took 45 minutes and resulted in a fairly dried-out artichoke with an unpleasantly spongy texture.
The flavor and texture were far superior when we boiled them in plenty of salted water. I knew that the fresher artichokes are, the more quickly they cook, but surprisingly, these were tender in just 14 or 15 minutes. We didn’t use any lemon, but the artichokes stayed vivid green. And they were not soggy -- a concern to some with boiling, but we drained them upside-down immediately and they were fine.
But what if they sit around for a week or more? How much longer would they take to cook? We kept them eight more days, then did another boiling test: This time it took 17 minutes. Makes you wonder how long ago those artichokes in the supermarket -- the ones that take 40 minutes to boil -- were picked.
And the 8-day-old artichoke? It tasted only marginally less wonderful than the farm-fresh one.