Though I am now an artichoke-adoring convert, the vegetable initially intimidated me. For starters, it has thorns. When I learned that the "proper" way to eat a steamed artichoke involved scraping one's teeth across its inner surfaces, I was only more frightened. I avoided the prickly beasts for years. But then, an Italian grandmother showed me how to cook artichoke hearts, the hidden, tender parts of the flower bud. Stirred into a creamy risotto, they tasted delightfully earthy, almost meaty. Perhaps best of all, they were entirely edible.
The Italians know a thing or two about the artichoke (Cynara scolymus); they grow more of this cultivated variety of wild cardoon than any other country. At the end of the 19th century, Italian immigrants planted the "Green Globe" variety along California's central coast and the state now produces the entire US crop. During spring and summer, growers cut the flower bud from the plant before it blooms. If given the chance to bloom, tiny periwinkle florets emerge, arranged in a composite floral structure similar to the bloom of a sunflower, the artichoke's familial relative. Much of the bud structure is inedible, notably those immature florets buried at the center known as the choke. Reaching the edible heart requires peeling back bracts, the modified leaves that wrap around the heart like protective, triangular scales. It is a task worth performing. Equipped with a pair or scissors and a little know-how, you can clean and cook an artichoke with relative ease. Select baby artichokes, picked from the base of the plant where they are shaded from the sun and do not develop the fuzzy choke, and your work will be even easier.
Choose dense artichokes with tightly closed bracts. If necessary, wash away the glaucous coating, a naturally occurring blue-gray wax. Prepare a large bowl of cool water with a squeeze of lemon juice or spoonful of vinegar, which will serve as an acidic bath to prevent the cut edges from turning brown. Using scissors, snip and discard the large thorns. If you plan to cook just the artichoke hearts, peel away the tough, outer dark-green leaves until you reach soft, yellow interior leaves. Don't be timid about this step because the outer leaves are fibrous and bitter--you won't want to eat them. Slice away the top one-third, trim any dark green parts of the stem, and slice the artichoke lengthwise into halves or quarters. In the middle, you will find the choke. Remove it and dunk the cleaned artichoke in the acidulated water. If you plan to steam the artichoke whole, simply slice away the top one-third, trim the stem, and place the vegetable in the acidulated water. Ecco tutto! That's all! Try the following artichoke risotto recipe and you, too, will love the armored thistle.
Braised artichoke hearts are a revelation. Cooking them in liquid brings out their hidden juiciness. When I saw my friend, Irene Ciravegna, prepare this artichoke risotto dish by braising the artichokes ahead of time and finishing the risotto as her dinner guests arrived, I realized that risotto could actually be a feasible party dish. She makes it with water rather than broth, which allows the artichoke flavor to shine. The key to making risotto is respecting the distinct phases of cooking: "tostatura" (the rice toasts in the pan), "cottura" (the grains should bathe but not drown in broth), and "mantecatura" (the risotto achieves its characteristic creaminess from the final additions of butter and cheese).
12 baby artichokes
1 lemon, juiced
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
¼ cup thinly sliced spring onion
½ cup white wine
1 ½ cups short-grain risotto rice, such as Arborio, Vialone Nano, or Carnaroli
4 cups lightly seasoned broth, or water
1 handful Parmigiano cheese, grated
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Clean the baby artichoke hearts according to the method outlined in the article above. Drain them from the acidulated water.
Place a heavy skillet with high sides over medium-high heat. Add 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 tablespoon butter, the cleaned artichokes, and the thinly sliced spring onion. Cook for several minutes, until the artichokes brown slightly and the onions soften.
Pour in 1 tablespoon lemon juice, ¼ cup white wine, and ¾ cup water. Add ¼ teaspoon kosher salt, and several grinds of black pepper. Stir to combine. Turn down the heat to low, cover the skillet, and braise the artichokes for about 20 minutes, or until they are tender when pierced with a fork.
Meanwhile, bring to a boil 4 cups lightly seasoned broth or water. Add a few herb sprigs, if you like, and remove from the heat.
When the braised artichokes are tender, remove the lid and increase the heat to medium. Add the rice, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon so that each grain of rice becomes coated with the sauce in the pan. When the rice turns translucent and begins to sizzle, add the remaining ¼ cup white wine and cook for a few minutes. The rice will soak up all the liquid and clump slightly. Pour in ½ cup warm broth and add ½ teaspoon salt. Stirring occasionally, continue to add successive ½ cups of warm broth each time the rice absorbs the liquid and thickens. The risotto is done when the rice is tender but retains a slight firmness at its core, like pasta al dente, about 20 minutes or so. (You may not need to use all the broth).
Turn off the heat. Add a final spoonful of warm broth, 1 tablespoon butter, and a handful of grated Parmigiano. Let the risotto rest for two to three minutes, and then stir vigorously until the risotto becomes creamy and wavy, or "all'onda," as the Italians say. Taste for seasoning and add salt or pepper, if needed. A shower of chopped parsley on top is nice but not necessary. Serve immediately--risotto waits for no one.