artichokes, a special birthday treat
Home Movies Tuesday!
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I grew up eating artichokes for dinner at least once a week, which my mom steamed and served with butter that we microwaved till melted and seasoned with garlic salt. Preparing and eating them was one of the first food-related things I learned how to do– I can not remember a time in my life where I did not know, either through instinct or memory, how to prepare and eat an artichoke.
It’s a menacing looking vegetable capped with thorns that requires a lot of work, including a using a pair of scissors, so am proud of and also confused by the fact that this is my first kitchen task as a child. I’m sure there’s a connection to this and how I came to be as an adult, but will need some more time and therapy to properly sort that out.
Anyway, a few weeks back, I was enthusiastically pulling the tough outer leaves off an artichoke I had steamed which I bought out of season at a Walmart in upstate New York because I was having a rough day and nothing turns my rough day around like a steamed artichoke (that’s not why I was at a Walmart, but turns out Walmart has artichokes— what a happy accident). The person I was eating with looked at me enjoying myself and said in a not unkind but not particularly kind way, “wow, you really love to work.”
He said this as someone who already knows that yes, I really love to work, that being filled with a sense of purpose is my kink. But it also sounded like maybe hadn’t until that moment realized that “loving to work” more often than not means doing things the hard way, which is annoying for someone who might see the concept of “work” as an impediment to joy, where as I see it as an enhancement.
For as much as I preach unfussiness, artichokes are pretty annoying. Fussy, even. They quite literally require grooming and pruning. Primadonna behavior. But to me the work that goes into them gives ceremony, it gives ritual. They become a special occasion food, especially knowing that they aren’t for everyone, even if that special occasion is just “it’s Thursday,” or better yet, “it’s my birthday.”
Artichokes aren’t the only food I like to work for. I enjoy eating most things that require a bit of DIY labor. In-shell peanuts at the bar. Shucking my own clams. Peeling fava beans (twice). Tackling steamed crabs, lobster, shrimp and crawfish. Ripping the legs off, sucking the heads, cracking the shells. All these things have shared commonalities in that they’re messy, time consuming and I injure myself on something sharp nearly every time. But is there a greater sense of satisfaction? How wonderful to take such joy in something you did the hard way because you thought it might be worth it only to realize it definitely was.
The juice, for me, is always worth the squeeze.
My birthday was last week, but the Home Movies editorial calendar pays no mind to literal dates, so here we have my very special birthday episode. If you missed last years, it was A Hot Dog Party (please enjoy!) with many friends, and this year, it’s artichokes, alone, which really felt right. Balance, babies!
Steamed Artichokes with Anchovy Butter
Artichokes are a bitter, thorny vegetable who’s sweetness is brought out once gently steamed (for upwards of an hour!). They are ideal dipped in butter, but if you are an aioli/mayonnaise person that is fine by me. TLDR; they require a dip, preferably a rich and fatty one. I don’t use a steamer basket—the stem stands them up straight enough to where I don’t really feel like I need one. I use a medium pot for two, which fit snugly, just the way I like it.
As for the thorn removal, just use a good pair of sharp kitchen shears and go slowly, like you’re doing an art project. Try to only cut off the thorn (don’t go too deep on the leaf) or they’ll look stubby and less elegant, and be more difficult to pluck off the body. For more on how to eat an artichoke (which I’ve been told is the most intimidating part), it’s in the recipe as the last step.
2 large globe artichokes
6 oz. (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, finely grated
2-4 anchovy filets
Freshly ground black pepper
1 lemon, halved for squeezing over
For the steamed artichokes:
1. Using a sharp knife, trim the artichoke stems, leaving as little as ½” or as much as 2” (depends if they’ll fit in your pot or not). With the artichoke laying on a cutting board, use a sharp knife to slice off the upper 1” off the top, exposing the rose-pattered interior. If you like (and I do recommend), use kitchen scissors to snip off the thorns on each remaining leaf.
2. Bring 2” of water to a simmer in a large pot. Place artichokes inside upright (stem on the bottom) and season with salt. Reduce heat to low, cover and steam until leaves pull out easily and hearts are tender (you can use tongs to try and pull a leaf so you don’t burn your hands), 60–70 minutes.
For the anchovy-garlic butter:
3. While the artichokes steam, melt the butter in a small pot over medium heat. Once the butter is melted, add garlic and anchovies, swirling to combine. Remove from heat and stir until anchovies are totally melted; season with salt and pepper.
4. Squeeze a bit of lemon over each steamed artichoke, sprinkle with flaky salt and serve alongside warm anchovy-garlic butter.
5. To understand the eating of an artichoke, knowing the anatomy is helpful. The leaves (edible) surround a choke (inedible) which rests on top of the heart (very edible) which is connected to the stem (also edible).
To eat the artichoke, pluck each leaf at a time, dipping generously into the butter, letting it pool into the naturally occurring cup shape at the bottom of the leaf. Using your teeth (bottom or top), scrape the meat from the bottom half.
6. The further and further you go into the center of the artichoke, the leaves change from sturdy and fibrous to thin and delicate. There is a sweet spot for the leaves, after the darkest green ones and before the palest, featheriest ones where they are tender enough to eat whole. This is a deeply personal choice and is certainly not common practice. I also eat the shells of peanuts and sunflower seeds on occasion. It’s my treat, for me and for me alone.
7. Eventually, you’ll begin to see the choke reveal itself, the ombre of green to white to lavender to plum color. A reminder that eating an artichoke is a real adventure.
7. Once you get to the purple-ish leaves that are so thin they’re almost transparent with pointy tips, discard them. They are too dangerous, too choke-adjacent to enjoy. Peel them off in one layer, revealing…The Choke. It looks like millions of small, tiny feathers or fibers of a brush large enough only for a doll.
8. Using a spoon or fork, gently scrape the choke away from the heart. The heart looks almost like the black part of a sunflower, where the seeds are. This checks out, as they are related to the same family, along with other thistles. That’s beautiful to me.
9. Cut the heart into quarters and, knowing it’s the best part of the artichoke, dip each one into the butter, then eat it. I also eat the stem, as it’s a flavorful and similarly-textured continuation of the heart.
Next-Day Artichokes with Arugula and Parmesan
(or, how to use chilled artichokes)
This is less a recipe and more of a suggestion, should you ever find yourself with an extra delightfully steamed artichoke from the night before. I always chill my artichokes if not eating them warm with warm butter. Eating the artichoke leaves with things like mayonnaise or vinaigrette is also nice as a cold snack, but for the heart, I prefer to slice it thinly and turn it into a salad that can only be described as elegant.
Thinly slice the prepared heart and place on a plate for salads. I guess we can call this a “salad plate.” Scatter with very peppery, almost too-spicy arugula leaves. If you can’t find The Good Arugula, then regular stuff will do, but next time you have the chance, you should go to a farmers market and ask who has The Good Arugula. Nothing compares.
Squeeze lemon over everything, sprinkle with flaky salt and lots of cracked pepper. Drizzle with olive oil. Shave lots of parmesan on top. Open a tin of anchovies and place little bits of anchovy in and around the salad. If you happen to have some eggs on hand you may want to boil them for 6–7 minutes for a jammy egg experience (the runny yolk will give you a good dressing here). More black pepper. Maybe another squeeze of lemon. Eat this salad while you drink a glass of good white wine, something that tastes crisp and clean and like pencil shavings. I am drinking lots of Savagnin and other wines from Arbois these days.