Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Tips for Breaking through an Artichoke's Armor

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Tips for Breaking through an Artichoke's Armor

Article excerpt

Artichokes are the armadillos of the vegetable kingdom.

There is a tender and succulent heart at the center of each specimen, but getting past its armor of prickly leaves can be daunting. How tough are those leaves? In my innocent younger years, I once tried to pulverize some artichoke leaves in my kitchen sink disposal and ended up destroying the machine in the process.

Despite that, steaming and eating a whole artichoke is relatively easy. You just cut off the stem and the top, trim the spiky tips of the leaves, place it in a steamer, and cook it for about 45 minutes. You then eat it a leaf at a time, zeroing in on the plump tasty nugget at the base of each leaf (dipped in butter, of course). It's a very pleasant way to clear away the brush until the happy moment when you arrive at the undefended heart.

But what if you don't want to eat it that way? What if your goal from the get-go is the heart and nothing but the heart? That's when artichokes can be a pretty tough slog.

I was taught the standard method cut off and discard the stem, peel down the leaves one by one until each breaks off at the base, slice off the top of the artichoke, then trim down the bottom to the part that's light green. Talk about laborious. I was not inspired to run through that routine very often.

Then I went to an artichoke seminar in Castroville, Calif. Demonstrating a recipe that centered on artichoke hearts, one of the chefs showed us a much easier way to lose the leaves. He simply placed the artichoke on its side, then cut down and around the outside of the artichoke, thus removing all the leaves in one fell swoop. Amazed and grateful, I've done it that way ever since.

By the way, do not cut off the stem. Though it is as fibrous and forbidding as the stem of a head of broccoli, if you peel away the rough outer layer, you'll reach the sweet, green and eminently eatable center.

A couple other notes about artichokes. They come our way twice each year March through May, then again in early fall. Often the autumn artichokes will have some brown spots, but that doesn't mean they're spoiled. In fact, these specimens are what the farmers call "frost-kissed" and may be even more flavorful than their springtime cousins.

Also, there is no such thing as a "baby artichoke." The size of each individual artichoke depends on its place on the central stalk. The ones at the top are large; the ones at the bottom can be quite small. The little ones are adorable and every bit as tasty as their big brothers. They also are more tender.

I've often wondered about the first human brave (or desperate) enough to hack away at the artichoke's armor in search of the jewel at its core. But I admire that spirit of adventure. We benefit from it to this day.

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FETTUCCINE WITH SAUTEED ARTICHOKE HEARTS AND PANCETTA

Yield: 4 servings

1 whole lemon plus 1 tablespoon lemon juice, divided

6 globe artichokes

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Salt and ground black pepper

2 ounces pancetta, medium chopped

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 cup chicken or vegetable broth

1 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated

12 ounces fettuccine pasta

Chopped fresh basil or parsley, to garnish

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