Way back in the last century, I spent a shift in the kitchen of a snooty French restaurant for a magazine story and learned that even the haughtiest chefs wield a can opener like a Wusthof. When an escargot order would land, a tin lid would hit the trash. (This was before recycling, of course.)
But when I went out recently to buy my first can of artichoke hearts, I found myself carefully tucking it under paper products in my hand basket. I live in New York, which is a tinier town than you would think, and the thought of having someone I know pass by and spot the evidence was unsettling. Everyone knows artichoke hearts are a convenience food, but they are socially acceptable only if you invest in the frozen or marinated/jarred kind. Cans are like processed cheese food in the Taleggio aisle.
Two hours after bringing that can home, however, I was boasting to our dinner guests about the magic ingredient in the tapenade they were happily slathering onto toasts. And, as happens whenever I say this, their eyes bugged out as I revealed that “you can use canned.”
It figures that it was the antithesis of a snooty French chef who enlightened me. I was flipping through David Lebovitz’s “My Paris Kitchen” and nearly dropped the drool-inducing cookbook when I saw that the first of his three tapenade recipes called for canned artichokes. If they were good enough for a Chez Panisse pioneer now living in Fresh Artichoke Central, they were worth a try here in the land of out-of-season/crazily pricey/prep-heavy fresh artichokes. In combination with a mere half-cup of green olives and a few flavorings, they produce a whole new sensation.
Once my resistance was down, I started noticing artichoke cans popping open everywhere. One night I dragged out an oldish cookbook to plan another dinner party, for vegetarians, and came across hummus whipped up with two cans of good stuff: chickpeas and artichoke hearts. That recipe was transformative as well, to the point that I have adapted it with other beans: Black-eyed peas in particular have a weirdly alluring affinity for artichokes.
And when I was handed straight-from-the-oven, bubbling artichoke-Serrano ham-Roncal cheese pinxtos at a friend’s recent birthday party in a Basque restaurant — and subsequently re-created them at home using canned artichoke bottoms — any lingering impulse to use the frozen or jarred kind just faded away.
In playing around with what to do after the top is popped (because most cans of artichokes no longer need an opener), I’ve realized that the old criticism that artichoke hearts are too briny and mushy might have validity. You do need a fair amount of fat, from olive oil or cheese or cream, to balance the salinity. Pureeing matters; something about those blender blades mellows the acidity and perfects the texture.
I have also learned the hard way that some canners pack in maximum weight with not much regard for quality. The outer leaves on the soft hearts can be pretty chewy, which means that in even the most carefully prepped tapenade or hummus, you can wind up with what comes across your tongue like plastic threads. Take the time to pluck off the tough stuff. Or use canned artichoke bottoms, which are harder to find but are all flesh and totally tender.
Both hearts and bottoms cost about the same, and both are much more affordable than the more aesthetically acceptable versions of artichokes in supermarkets. When a can costs a few bucks it can free you to spring for cheese at $20 a pound. I’ve found that the worst downside to artichokes is eliminated in the canned kind: You can eat them without your accompanying glass of wine turning too sweet.
As for why a chef from America’s artichoke kingdom (California) would call for canned hearts in his love letter from Paris, Lebovitz explained via e-mail that he was actually “going for authenticity,” having himself never had artichoke tapenade made from the fresh sort in France.
“I think it’s one of those things, like using canned tuna for tuna salad (and Niçoise salad), which provides the authentic flavor, just like tinned sardines are a completely different thing than fresh sardines — both are good, but different.”
Now that I have eaten my way through about six batches of Lebovitz’s tapenade, I realize the author gets it: “I’d rather have someone make the recipe a lot, using canned artichokes, than closing the book and putting it back on the shelf, without making anything.”
I didn’t ask him about the sourcing of escargots these days.
Schrambling is a New York food writer.