Most people look at an artichoke and think: "What do I do with this?" But artichokes only look intimidating, they're actually easy to prepare once you know how. Originally from the Mediterranean, artichokes have a history that dates back to Roman times. There are countless cultivated varieties, especially in Italy, where artichokes are enjoyed in many different preparations including raw salads, stuffed and baked, steamed, grilled, etc. In the States we have just two varieties: the large globe and small baby. The simplest way to prepare artichokes is steaming. Not only is it easy to do, the method also retains the subtle flavors that make artichokes so revered.
Artichokes make a fun party food since they require a hands-on approach. Each leaf is removed one by one and nibbled on. Once all the leaves have been removed, and the choke has been scraped away, only the heart remains. The heart and the stem have the most flavor. The leaves are not entirely edible, so you need to use your teeth to scrape the bit of flesh from each leaf. Typically steamed artichokes are served with melted butter or hollandaise, but I like to dip into Dijon vinaigrette, which is much lighter. Serve steamed artichokes as an appetizer for any occasion.
Now is a good time to buy artichokes since production is at its height in spring into summer. California supplies all of the United States. You can find artichokes at most supermarkets. Look for beautiful bright green globes with tight leaves and few blemishes. The stem is a good indicator of freshness: If it's extremely dry, the artichoke is not fresh. When you get them home, it's best to cook the artichokes within a day or two. Keep them in a plastic bag with a spritz of water until ready to cook.
Steamed Artichokes with Dijon Vinaigrette
for the Dijon vinaigrette:
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons white-wine vinegar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
for the steamed artichokes:
3 large globe artichokes
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 tablespoon coarse salt
To make the vinaigrette: Combine mustard, vinegar, lemon juice, and olive oil in a medium bowl. Whisk until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper.
Prepare a bowl of acidulated water: Squeeze half a lemon into a large bowl of cool water.
To prepare artichokes: Cut about 1 inch from the top of each artichoke. Using kitchen shears, trim the thorny leaves. Cut off the stem and trim the base so the artichoke sits flat. Don't discard the stems, trim using a knife or vegetable peeler. While preparing the artichokes, rub them all over with the lemon half and add to the bowl of acidulated water until ready to cook.
Fill a large pot with about 2 inches of water. Add the bay leaf, peppercorns, and salt. Squeeze in the remaining lemon half. Fit the pot with a steamer basket or rack. Bring to a boil. Add the artichokes and their stems. Cover and lower to a simmer. Cook until the artichokes are tender when the centers are pierced with a knife, about 25 minutes. Remove artichokes to a platter and serve with individual dipping bowls of vinaigrette. Yield: 4 to 6 servings as an appetizer.