I think the first time I ever had a steamed artichoke was on my second date with Mark nearly eight years ago. It was at a hip (or it was at the time) restaurant called Newsroom which is located on Roberson across the street from the fashionable and more upscale Ivy. He suggested we order an artichoke as an appetizer. I didn't really know what it was but I was open minded. "They're really good," He assured me. "My mom used to make them. With drawn butter." After our server brought it out, Mark instructed me on how to pluck off the prehistoric looking leaves, dip them in one of the sauces, likely chipotle flavored (it was the late 90's after all) that came with it and then scrape off the meat with our teeth. I gave it a try. It was fine, I thought to myself. Not spectacular. I was still in the mindset that an appetizer consisted of something that was a little less work. Something that offered more bang for the buck, so to say. Like potato skins or fried mozzarella sticks. Fortunately, Mark didn't hold my pedestrian palate against me and over the course of our time together I've come to appreciate and love all sorts of foods I never thought I would. Curiously, steamed artichokes still left me feeling indifferent.
However for some reason, last week I suddenly developed a strange, almost borderline obsessive craving for one. As I've mentioned in the past, I'm somewhat susceptible to seeing foods on TV or in movies and then HAVING to have them. So I was at work watching footage and in it, someone had made a dinner of a roasted pork loin wrapped in bacon and steamed artichokes. It looked so effortless and elegant. As I watched them devour the artichoke slowly, leaf by leaf, taking sips of wine in between, the process that I initially found to be arduous, looked relaxing, almost sensual.
I admit that when it comes to eating, I'm a bit of a wolfer. Once food is ready, I put my head down and just dig in. Fast and furious. I think a lot of people are that way. Especially when it comes to preparing their meals. Working in the kitchen is seen as something we want to get done as soon as possible, so we can get out and do something that is actually fun. I know this is hardly a revolutionary observation, but often, the process is just as enjoyable as the outcome, sometimes more so. I think artichokes are the perfect example of this. It takes time to prepare them and it takes time to eat them. But it is time well spent.
(For the artichokes)
4 large artichokes (I only made two)
3 lemons, halved
2 cloves garlic, lightly crushed
1 teaspoon whole pepper corns
1 or 2 sprigs of thyme
2 tablespoons olive oil
(For the salsa verde)
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves
2 tablespoons drained capers, rinsed
3 tablespoons chopped shallot
2 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 1/2 tablespoons fresh tarragon leaves
1 anchovy fillet
Pinch of dried crushed red pepper
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons whipping cream
2 teaspoons Sherry wine vinegar
Heat small skillet over medium heat. Add fennel seeds and toast until aromatic and beginning to darken, about 2 minutes. Transfer seeds to a food processor. Add parsley, capers, shallot, garlic, tarragon, anchovy, and crushed red pepper to processor. Puree until coarse paste forms, scraping down sides occasionally. Add the oil, cream, and vinegar and pulse a few more times until incorporated. Season with salt and pepper.
The salsa verde can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature.
Fill a large bowl with cold water and squeeze in a lemon. Next trim the artichoke. Lay the artichoke on its side and cut off top third. A serrated knife is good for this, since the leaves are pretty tough. Trim the stem so you have about two inches remaining. So many people cut the entire stem off, but I think it tastes almost as good as the heart, so don't just throw it away. Using kitchen scissors, cut the prickly top 1/2 inch off each remaining leaf. To prevent the artichoke from turning an unpleasant brown, rub all cut surfaces with lemon, squeezing slightly to release juice.
Then gently spread the leaves to get access to the purple center and then using a small spoon or melon baller, scrape out the fuzzy choke. Again, rub the service with a cut lemon to prevent browning.
Fill a deep pot with two inches of water. Juice two more lemon halves and add the juice and lemon halves to the pot along with salt, the peppercorns, thyme, garlic, and olive oil.
Cover the pot and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Add the artichokes, stem end up, cover the pot and steam for about 25 to 30 minutes. The artichokes are done when the leaves pull off easily and the heart should feel tender when pierced with the tip of a knife.
Remove the artichokes from the water and drain and cool upside down for about 10 minutes. Serve with a small dish of the salsa verde. I also served mine with a some aioli. I cheated and used mayonnaise that I flavored with a clove of garlic that I mashed with some salt as well as a little bit of lemon juice and zest.
I served the artichokes with a cutting board crowded with goat cheese, some spicy cured sausage, crackers, tapenade, sweet, sticky fig jam and some tart kumquats. It was the perfect low-key Friday meal, kick-starting a lazy Memorial day weekend. The artichokes were cooked really well, a pleasant surprise since I've never made them before, the flesh of each leaf tender and the perfect size and shape for a small dallop of the salty, brine and herbaceous salsa verde.
For those who don't know, salsa verde is similar to the Argentinian sauce chimichuri or the Moroccan sauce, charmoula. Salsa verde recipes vary greatly, but they almost all have in common, a base of olive oil, lemon juice or vinegar and a combination of capers and anchovy. Mixed in with this is typically flat parsley and fresh oregano, although there are versions that use mint, basil, rosemary or any kind of herb. I like this one and its use of tarragon, which works really well with the artichoke, since they are both sort of springy. The tarragon also contrasts the intensity of the capers and anchovy and sort of lightens it up and gives it a freshness. The sauce could be made on its own and would be great with chicken, pork or a fish.