Artichokes are intimidating. Not the meek hearts, already cleaned and cooked and ready to use from the can. Those were the only kind I knew for most of my life, usually as a stand-in for spring in pizza quattro stagioni–four seasons pizza, which, thanks to the artichokes, I thought was the most elegant pizza of all. Artichokes, even those in cans, were exotic and expensive and not something we ate growing up. I eventually experienced a steamed artichoke, which involved pulling off the leaves, dipping them in a lemony, garlicky butter and pulling the leaves between my teeth to scrape off the essence of artichoke. But it seemed to me to be awfully similar to snails and, I hear, frogs’ legs–things that don’t taste that great on their own and are essentially a garlic-butter delivery system. (I can only go on the Carnivore’s word regarding frogs’ legs; when we were dating, the first time I looked into his freezer, I saw a bag of them and nearly fainted and that was the end of amphibians in the kitchen.)At French markets in spring, artichokes accompany asparagus as the first vegetables of spring. Peas appear later. Tomatoes and the rest of the cornucopia don’t make their entrance until June at best. After all, it’s risky to plant a garden before the ice saints.
The market stalls are piled high with pyramids of myriad kinds of artichokes. Purple, green, long, perfectly round….how to choose? As the Carnivore and I finished up our marketing on Saturday, we decided to be daring. (Artichokes are old hat for the Carnivore, but the steamed and bathed in butter version…or hearts, again bathed in butter, and served with lamb.) Seeing a little old lady grab a bouquet of artichokes, then a second bouquet, I decided to follow suit. Market tip: If you aren’t sure whether the produce is good, observe what little old ladies are buying, because they actually know how to cook. But the way to pick artichokes is similar to other produce: they should feel heavy, full and firm–which shows they are fresh and not old and dried out. It was the end of the market, and we were given even more artichokes by the vendor, who didn’t want to be bothered with leftovers. (Another market tip: haggling isn’t done, at least not at the food market, but you’re likely to get extras at the end of the market.)
The next challenge was what to do with our personal pyramid of artichokes. I checked all my go-to French food sources: David Lebovitz, who gives a good step-by-step guide to trimming artichokes down to the hearts. (By the way, I made his asparagus mimosa for Sunday lunch and it was AWESOME.)You can see a good drawing of the anatomy of an artichoke here. In French, the heart is called le fond, which also means the bottom, the crux or the base. And the choke–the fluff that grows out of the heart–is called foin, or straw. Just to make things confusing consider this: the artichoke heart melts in your mouth: le fond d’artichaut fond dans la bouche. Yup, fond also is the third person present tense for fondre, or to melt. I love French.
I decided to do a few whole artichokes à la Mimi Thorisson, with her recipe for stuffed artichokes. I had extra stuffing, which I put on top of some chicken breasts and baked along with the artichokes (on a separate sheet, on the rack above the artichokes for a little steaming action). Delicious! The rest of the artichokes would be mostly sacrificed for their hearts. Following the advice of David Lebovitz, as well as Le Monde’s Chef Simon and Cuisine Actuelle, which wisely suggested wearing gloves–artichokes can turn your hands a surprisingly tenacious color. I wanted to use the recipe by Carcassonne native Prosper Montagné in his book “Les Délices de la Table ou les Quatre Saisons Gourmandes.” He has several, and I went for Lyonnaise-style quarters of artichoke hearts.
Montagné suggests cooking the artichoke hearts “à blanc,” which sent me down another rabbit hole. Everybody emphasizes rubbing your artichoke (heart or whole) with lemon juice to keep it from oxidizing and turning unattractively black, the way avocados do. To “cook something white” involves blanching it in a mixture that contains acid (vinegar or lemon juice), fat (oil or butter) and flour. The acid does its anti-oxidizing duties while the flour forms a barrier to light and the fat makes a protective film that seals the artichoke (or other food) from air. Go figure.My buddy Chef Simon gives a good explanation of les blancs, with proportions, kind of. Prosper Montagné also has a mix for une cuisson à blanc: 1.5 cups of water, juice of half a lemon and a spoon (no indication of how big) of oil. I used Simon’s version, which had more water (2 liters) and also a pinch of salt and a spoon of flour. First, mix the flour with a little cold water, adding more little by little to avoid lumps, then the rest of the ingredients and bring to a boil.The Lyonnaise style involves cutting the hearts into quarters, cooking finely minced onion in butter until translucent and setting the hearts on top, then adding a cup of white wine. Cook until the liquid is reduced, then add 1.5 cups of veal broth and cook, covered, for 45 minutes. Talk about melt in your mouth.