Summer calls for simplifiers: vegetables from the garden that you can pick lots of, then serve in minutes for last-minute arrivals by family and friends. Big bowls of lettuce squirted with vinaigrette. Platters of tomatoes, quickly sliced. A boiling pot of corn. This week I discovered a new one: artichokes.
That might seem surprising. Artichokes are not considered a snap to grow, prepare or eat. Nor are they often seen in East Coast gardens. But here’s the artichoke story.
A biennial by nature, the plant produces its tasty edible buds during its second year, after the chill of, say, a Californian or an Italian winter. But certain “annual” varieties, such as the widely available Imperial Star, can easily be tricked into thinking they are two years old and ready to bloom.
We start our artichoke seedlings in mid- to late winter, at least eight weeks before the last expected frost, in a heated greenhouse (you could use a warm, sunny room). Then, we give the seedlings a moderate chilling by setting them out in a cold frame for at least two weeks. Any spot where it gets down to about 50 degrees but there’s no danger of a hard freeze will do. When warm weather arrives, off they go.
Soon we have a row of stately, spiky plants, crowned with those luscious globes, ready to eat well before tomatoes and corn appear. (Virginia Cooperative Extension offers this advice to commercial growers, but the article is useful for home gardeners, too.)
Picking them is a simple matter of using a sharp little knife and severing each globe, leaving a few inches of stem. (The stem is yummy.) Artichoke buds get increasingly tough as they open, so look for ones with their scales still tightly closed.
For a tidy presentation, I’ve always followed my mother’s practice of snipping off the sharply pointed tips of the scales, peeling the stems with a vegetable peeler, then rubbing all the surfaces with lemon to prevent discoloring.
I steam them for a minimum of 45 minutes, until a test scale pulls off with ease. They are served hot, with a little dish of melted butter for each person, and a big bowl in the middle of the table to throw the scales into after we’ve stripped the delicious flesh from the base of each one with our front teeth.
After cutting out the scratchy “choke” that gives the vegetable its name, the meaty, delectable heart is then dipped in the butter and eaten. Any melted butter left over gets mopped up with crusty bread. You can make a satisfying evening meal with that. Aioli instead of butter is a festive option.
But here’s what happened this week. My husband walked in with a basket of artichokes and set them on the kitchen table. “I don’t have time,” I wailed. He cut off all the stems and threw them out. Then he dumped all the globes into a big pot of boiling water, and I cooked them for over an hour, until they were so tender that little scales were falling off of their own accord. They were so soft that you could grab and eat the bases of several scales at once, then fistfuls near the center. Once you got to the heart, you could scoop out the choke with your fingers, and swish the heart in the butter. It was quick. It was messy. It was artichoke heaven.
Tip of the week
If chipmunks or squirrels are sampling and ruining vine-ripe tomatoes, harvest the fruit just as it begins to show color. A mature but green tomato will ripen indoors or in a screened porch in a few days without a loss of fresh flavor. — Adrian Higgins
Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”