Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Best Things You Probably Aren't Eating Yet: Artichokes

Okay, so maybe the title is a little off this time around.  You probably are eating artichokes.  Most likely in some delicious creamy dip form.  But I'm talking about picking up a whole artichoke and cooking and eating it.  I'm guessing that only a handful out there do that.  Maybe I'm wrong on this one, but nearly every time I'm at the store and someone sees me putting a bunch of artichokes into my cart, I am asked, "But what do you DO with them?", or, "Yes, but do the kids eat them?".  We love them.  Well, except for the young picky one, but he'll get there soon enough.  In the meantime, more for the rest of us!

True story: back in high school, an old boyfriend of mine tried to get me to eat artichokes.  His family, being part Italian, loved them.  I didn't see the appeal, and passed on the experience, favoring his mom's brilliant habit of roasting heads of garlic so that we could smear the soft, browned cloves over bread.  More for the rest of them, I guess.  Then, I started dating my hubby, and his (part Italian) family loved artichokes too.  I decided to give it a go.  Obviously, being able to get me to try artichokes was proof that I had made the right choice in a boyfriend.  It didn't hurt that his family liked to serve them with a side bowl of melted butter to dip each leaf into.  I mean, I'm no Paula Deen or anything, but I have been know to eat pats of butter straight off the stick.  I'm no stranger to butter, not at all.  So, I gave it a go, and I found out what I had been missing.  Artichokes are mild, slightly sweet, and almost nutty in flavor.  There's not really anything to compare them to.  They're delicious, and also kind of fun to eat.

Anyhow, long story short, my eyes were opened, and I haven't turned back since...on both the artichokes and my hubby.  I fell hard, on both counts.  In the years since, I have stumbled across my own favorite method for cooking artichokes, and that's what I'm going to share with you.  It's straightforward, easy, fairly quick, and it cooks the artichokes so that they have such a good flavor that you don't even need (gasp!) the butter.  Of course, you still can serve it with butter...I mean, c'mon's butter!  

Artichokes are full of plenty of good things, including magnesium, potassium, vitamin C, and iron.  Depending on where you live, you might be able to find artichokes year-round.  But seasonally, the best time for them is in the spring, with a little bonus harvest in the fall.  When you look for your artichokes, you want to pick one with the leaves tight together, not spread.  Don't be afraid if, especially in the fall, the leaves have browned tips to them.  Those are what they call "frosted" artichokes, and it just means they were hit with a frost.  For some reason, this seems to make them taste sweeter.  Look at the stem end of the chokes, and try to get ones that don't have too much purple in them.  In my experience, the more purple, the tougher the artichoke meat will be.

Once you get home, give the artichokes a quick rinse.  Dry them off, and then cut off the stem end, close to the base.  Snap off the few loose leaves around the stem base as well.

Next, with a good knife, cut off the top of the artichoke, about 1/3 of the way down.  A serrated knife can make this task a little easier.  Generally, you should have about 2 rows of full leaves below where your cut starts.

Now, before I go any further, I have to put a small disclaimer here.  Two parts of this recipe cause a dilemma for me, because they go against things my general food and cooking beliefs.  Because we have artichokes so rarely, and because this method makes them so delicious, and because balance is an important part of life, I am okay with them in this instance.  They are cooked in a microwave, and they are covered in plastic to do so.  I make sure to only use the plastic wrap that is BPA-free and that states "microwave safe" on the package.  I have nothing against microwaves, I just usually prefer to have more control over the heat on what I'm cooking than I can get with the microwave.  Plus, I guess I kind of do have something against microwaves, because I'm over-the-top cautious about things that I worry may encourage cancer growth, and microwaves are on my suspicious list.  Anyway, lecture and disclaimer over.

Put a little water in the bottom of a microwave-safe bowl.  You can add some lemon juice to it, if you like, but I just go with straight H2O.  Place the artichoke top-down in the bowl in the water.  Cover the artichoke and the bowl with a layer of plastic wrap and cut a few small slits for ventilation.

Pop the artichoke in the microwave for 6-7 minutes on high.  For my microwave, 6:30 works almost perfectly every time.  But of course, it depends on the microwave, and the size of the artichokes.

Remove it carefully after the timer stops.  When it's not too hot to touch, take off the plastic wrap and flip the artichoke up the right way.  Ready to enjoy!

To eat an artichoke, you pluck off each leaf and scrape the soft bottom inside of them with your teeth.  My girls love doing this.  We usually have a "garbage bowl" on the table for them to put the eaten leaves.  As you go, the leaves will get smaller and smaller.  Eventually, you'll get down to the middle of the artichoke, and you get the bonus challenge of cleaning the heart.  Take a knife or a spoon (I've heard a grapefruit spoon works really well) and scrape off the fuzzy part covering the heart.  If there are any hard leaf stumps around the outside, cut those off as well.  Then you're left with the heart, which should be tender enough to cut with the side of your fork. It's delicious, like the treasure at the end of a long, leaf-scraping treasure hunt.  And I usually save my butter-dipping slice of heaven for the heart.  

We had artichokes last night with dinner, and each girl polished off her own artichoke.  I also planted seeds to start seedlings for our own artichokes plants this year in the gardens.  I'm not sure how they'll do, because I've never tried growing them before, but I figure my family's love for them deserves me at least attempting to  grow them on our own.  I'll keep you posted on that one.

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