There is a tender and succulent heart at the centre of each specimen, but getting past its armour 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, California. Demonstrating a recipe that centred 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 centre.
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 flavourful 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 armour in search of the jewel at its core. But I admire that spirit of adventure. We benefit from it to this day.
FETTUCCINE WITH SAUTEED ARTICHOKE HEARTS AND PANCETTA
Start to finish: 1 hour
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 1/2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated
12 ounces fettuccine pasta
Chopped fresh basil or parsley, to garnish
Into a large bowl, juice the lemon and throw in the halves along with 1 quart of cold water.
Working with 1 artichoke at a time, lay each artichoke on its side and cut down on one side to trim off the tough outer leaves and expose the lighter green inner leaves. Discard the outer leaves. Turn the artichoke a quarter turn and continue trimming off the exterior leaves, repeating the process all around the artichoke. Cut off the top 1 1/2 inches of the artichoke, discarding those leaves. Using a melon baller, reach into the top of the artichoke and scoop out the fuzzy choke and discard it.
Trim off the bottom 1/4-inch of the artichoke stem then, working very quickly using a paring knife or a peeler, cut off the tough outer layer of the stem until you reach the tender light green core. Using the paring knife, trim off all the tough green part at the base of the artichoke that surrounds the heart until you have gotten down to the tender inner green part. Cut the artichokes into quarters and drop them into the water.
When all of the artichoke hearts have been prepared, remove them from the water and use paper towels to pat them dry.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.
In a large skillet over medium-high, heat the oil. Reduce the heat to medium, add the artichoke hearts and saute them, stirring often, until they are golden brown on all sides, about 8 to 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, then transfer them to a large bowl.
Return the skillet to the heat and add the pancetta, reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, until it is golden, about 2 minutes. Return the artichokes to the pan along with the garlic and saute 1 minute. Add the chicken broth and bring the liquid to a boil. Set aside, off the heat, while you cook the pasta.
Add the fettuccine to the boiling water and cook, according to package directions, until almost al dente. Drain the pasta, reserving 1 cup of the cooking liquid, and add the fettuccine to the skillet.
Cook, adding the remaining 1 tablespoon of lemon juice and as much of the reserved cooking liquid as necessary to form a sauce, stirring, until the pasta is just finished cooking. Stir in half the cheese and pepper to taste. Divide among 4 serving bowls, then top each portion with additional cheese and basil or parsley.
Nutrition information per serving: 640 calories; 170 calories from fat (27 per cent of total calories); 19 g fat (5 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 20 mg cholesterol; 93 g carbohydrate; 17 g fiber; 9 g sugar; 28 g protein; 940 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."