Rarely can a mere vegetable carry off an entire meal on its own merits.
Even less likely is an edible thistle's status as springtime celebrity. Thorny persona aside, the artichoke wins over skeptics with its inimitable flavor and a richness matched by very few plants.
with Bay Leaves
4 medium artichokes with tightly packed leaves
12 large, fresh (not dried) bay leaves
6 to 8 tablespoons olive oil
Juice of 1 lime
Fleur de sel or other fine-quality salt
Trim back stalks of the artichokes, snip outer edges of leaves and trim tops.
Cut the bay leaves in half lengthwise and tuck bay leaves into artichoke leaves, distributing them evenly and hiding them well. Wrap each artichoke in several rounds of plastic wrap.
Fill a stockpot or deep saucepan half-full with unsalted water and bring it to a boil. Have ready a saucepan lid slightly smaller than the stockpot and also a weight, such as a small, heavy saucepan.
Lower artichokes into boiling water still in the plastic. Submerge them with the saucepan lid held in place by weight. Simmer artichokes until tender enough that a small, sharp knife easily pierces the base, about 30 minutes.
Remove artichokes from the water with a slotted spoon and leave them to cool in their plastic wrap for 1 hour.
Meanwhile, make a vinaigrette by mixing the olive oil and lime juice. Put this in a sauceboat and set aside.
To serve, unwrap artichokes and arrange them on 4 small plates, adding a small mound of the sea salt beside each. Pass vinaigrette for people to use as they wish.
Makes 4 servings.
— Recipe adapted by the Los Angeles Times from Alain Passard's "The Art of Cooking With Vegetables."
Artichoke lovers know that April brings California's green globes, so large they can sate many appetites, maybe with some crusty bread, olives and cheese. Taking a bit longer to blossom, local artichokes usually are smaller, often allowing for consumption of the entire stem once its outermost layer has been peeled away. Home gardens, perhaps, are the best sources for "baby" artichokes that can be eaten with little trimming, or even raw.
A well-established artichoke plant — it's a perennial — will produce one or two large artichokes, a half-dozen or so medium-sized ones and even more "babies." Despite their relative rarity, big artichokes are most commonly consumed, so supermarkets charge high prices for them: about $3 or more.
Grocers apparently doubt that smaller artichokes would sell as well, even at a lower cost, because they're surprisingly scarce locally. Farmers markets are the most reliable retailers throughout May.
Artichokes, irrespective of size, most often are steamed or boiled and eaten leaf by leaf, dunked in drawn butter or mayonnaise, the soft flesh scraped off with one's teeth. The succulent heart under all those leaves is the ultimate prize. But more cooks are experimenting with other methods, particularly for small artichokes.
For a simple side dish, quarter small artichokes and put them in a skillet with just enough water to cover the pan's bottom, along with a good glug of olive oil. Cook, covered, over medium heat until the artichokes are tender. Remove the lid and increase heat to high until the liquid condenses into a syrup. Season as desired with garlic and herbs.
Then use these small artichokes in all sorts of dishes: pasta, risotto, even vegetable stew. There's typically no need to remove the fuzzy choke.
For salads, leave small artichokes raw and thinly shave them (1/16 inch) on a mandoline or with a vegetable peeler. Uncooked artichokes' subtly sweet flavor can handle heavy seasoning with lemon juice and olive oil.
Lemon juice keeps cut artichokes from browning. The discoloration is harmless, but conscientious cooks preserve artichokes' gorgeous green hue with acidulated water.
Many restaurants trim away and discard most of the vegetable's leaves and base, as well as the hairy choke. This is no small job, as a chef friend once demonstrated in my kitchen.
I stick with the most basic way to ready an artichoke for steaming: Cut the top flat, remove the outermost leaves near the stem, peel the stem and trim off the thorns remaining on any other leaves. The choke can be left in place while cooking and eating a leaf at a time until all that's left is the fur covering the heart, which can be scraped off with a spoon or fingers.
To the water for steaming artichokes, I add a hefty slice of lemon, a few peeled garlic cloves, a pinch of whole peppercorns and some sprigs of fresh herbs. Thyme, rosemary and oregano are nice.
A bay leaf or two lends a slight bitterness that complements citrus. When I have fresh — instead of dried — bay, I'll be preparing this recipe that calls for stuffing bay leaves between each layer of artichoke leaves, trapping bay's earthy essence with plastic wrap and then seasoning the finished artichokes with lime instead of lemon.