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Peel (and pluck and trim) and eat

Artichokes take some work, but they are worth the effort

By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / May 4, 2011

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In the kitchen, artichokes — the giant fleshly flower buds of a perennial thistle — can be a bit unwieldy. The baby buds are entirely edible, but as they grow, the leaves and skin get tougher and tougher. By the time a mature artichoke is harvested for market (they’re grown primarily in Northern California), it is covered in a bitter green armor that either needs to be peeled from the raw artichoke or eaten around and picked over after the artichoke is cooked.

If you snip off the thorns on the tips of the leaves, you can steam an artichoke until the newly reshaped bud is soft and dull green, ready to be pulled apart and devoured, leaf by leaf, dipped in melted butter or mayonnaise. The experience is not unlike eating lobster or crab in the rough. When the leaves are all plucked and scraped, what remains is the tender, edible heart and a flowery center, which is the inedible choke. Scoop out the choke and discard it. The heart leaves a pleasant anise aftertaste that is unmistakable.

Another way to prepare the artichoke is to cut away everything inedible, but this takes practice. With all the bitter green parts gone, the bud is tender enough to thinly slice and eat raw, perhaps as the star of a salad tossed with lemon juice, olive oil, and Parmesan. It is also ready to be braised, simmered, or battered and deep-fried.

To peel a raw artichoke, first snap off the outer leaves one by one, taking care to leave the meat at the bottom of each leaf where it attaches to the rest of the bud. Stop when you get to the tender and lighter yellowish green inner leaves. Spread these and use a small spoon or melon baller to scoop out the feathery choke. With a vegetable peeler, trim the green skin from the stem until it is white and smooth. The cut surfaces of an artichoke turn brown quickly; rub the exposed parts with lemon as you work.

In Rome, cooks trim and peel artichoke hearts, season them with the herb mentuccia (it tastes like a cross between mint and oregano), garlic, and lemon, and then simmer them in olive oil and white wine. Mentuccia grows wild in Italy; substitute fresh mint. Another dish matches the spring vegetable with lamb. Simmer peeled artichokes with boneless pieces of lamb leg in a broth with cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and lemon rind. Serve in shallow bowls with fresh mint, green olives, and lemon wedges over buttery polenta.

Artichokes are always worth the trouble, even if you need to eat around their armor. They define spring.

Jonathan Levitt can be reached at jon.levit@gmail.com