A couple of weekends ago I was in Berkeley for dinner. Having time to kill beforehand, I naturally went grocery shopping. While in Andronico’s I came upon the most beautiful artichokes I’d ever seen.
So, sure, you wouldn’t normally think of an artichoke as a thing of beauty. But you’ve probably never seen artichokes like these. The first thing to strike you is their size. These things are
massive. Each one is the size of a small cantalope. And just as round. The leaves all curved delicately over the top of the artichoke, forming an almost perfect globe.
Another appealing characteristic of these artichokes was their price. $1.50? For a beautiful gargantuan locally-grown edible thistle like that? Sign me up. Heck, for that price I’ll get two, one green and one purple.
The most interesting part of these artichokes for me was the stem. Each one came attached to about 10″ of artichoke stem, looking for all the world like a maenad’s bacchic thyrsus. It was almost enough to make a gal want to get completely trashed and run through the woods bonking unsuspecting people over the head with her artichoke. Almost.
The reason the stem interests me so much is that I’d heard that the stem—not the heart—is really the best part of the artichoke. Silly Americans have been ignoring this delicacy while the more food-savvy Europeans sit across the ocean laughing derisively and feasting on artichoke stalks. Finally I would have my chance to test this rumor.
Cooking these monstronsities proved to be a minor challenge. They were too large for any of my normal pots so I ended up using my 12 quart stock pot with its small steamer basket. Still, there was no hope of cooking them intact so off came the stems. Then I removed what I thought was all of the thready outside of the stems (and was later proved wrong) and tossed them into the steamer along with the flower portions.
Being as large as they were, the artichokes ended up needing a good 45 minute steam before they were cooked through. Pulling the stems out I found that, even after steaming, most of the stem was going to have to go. Artichoke stems, like celery stalks, have these fibrous threads running along their length. Unlike celery, as I now discovered, those threads ran through most of the stem rather than just along the outside layer. Each stem had a diameter of about 1.5″ when I started. By the time I’d removed the threads and reached the tender core the diameter was a little over 0.5″. Er… Well, no one ever accused an artichoke of being an efficient vegetable.
I was otherwise occupied last night and not particularly hungry, so I left the flower portions for later in the week and focused my attention on eating the stems. I sliced them up into bite-sized rounds and munched them plain alongside some very nice cheeses, bread and crackers (many thanks, Sara, Shaughnn and Hannah!).
The verdict? Man, the Europeans are right to laugh at us. Eating the core of an artichoke stem is just like eating the hearts from three or four artichokes but without all the mess of leaves and choke fuzz. These things are fantastic just on their own and well worth hunting to find. If you have a local farmer’s market, find someone who sells artichokes and ask him/her to cut some of these special for you and have them bring them the following week. You don’t get a lot out of each one but, like crab, lobster and many other fine foods, it’s well worth the effort.