I have a confession. I never—like, ever—work with fresh artichokes. I always buy canned or frozen hearts, which ask next to nothing of me. They come trimmed, nary a pointy or inedible piece in sight, and perfectly steamed/boiled/cooked. One thing leads to another, and they’re dinner. Pesto-y pasta. Feta-laden salads. Cheesy toast. Even Jacques Pepin has a similar vice, writing in his Poulets & Legumes cookbook: “I love frozen baby peas, which are the smallest, sweetest peas. Frozen artichokes are another favorite. I always keep both on hand.”
But here’s the difference: Jacques Pepin knows his way around a fresh artichoke—from how to prep them to the best way to use them—and I don’t. Maybe you don’t, either? No sweat. Every spring, I tell myself I’m going to
conquer befriend the vegetable. And this spring, I—and you!—actually will with the help of five of the most exciting chefs around the country. I asked them why they love artichokes, how they use them, and, pretty please, for all their tips and tricks. Here’s what they said.
1. Choose Your ‘Choke Wisely.
Before we can get to Pepin’s level, first we need to chat tips for buying an actually good, fresh artichoke. After all, your food is only as good as your ingredients. What should we be looking for—or avoiding—in picking out a good artichoke from a bad one?
Artichokes are, themselves, not-yet-blossomed flower buds of a thistle. Once bloomed, the bud transforms into something coarse, dry, and inedible.
So, if what we’re after is a very un-blossomed blossom, look for a tight bud with tight leaves (you wouldn’t pick a rose with splayed, limp petals, would you?). Before committing to an artichoke, weigh a couple in your hands. Go for artichokes that are relatively heavy for their size—heavier weight is an indicator of water, which is an indicator of freshness. Another cue? Peep the stems. They should not look overly dry.
Rest assured that visual cues for regular artichokes apply to baby, or young, artichokes as well. Go for those with tightly packed heads of fresh-looking, green leaves, a heavy weight, and not dry stems.
2. Gather Your Tools (& Protective Gear).
You probably already know Chef Adrienne Cheatham (she was a runner-up on Top Chef!). Eventually, she’d like to open her own restaurant, but for now, she’s working on a roaming pop-up series, called SundayBest:
“I want to test out the concepts that I’m considering,” she wrote me. “We’re looking forward to monthly pop ups in N.Y.C., pop ups in other cities, involvement in community initiatives, and events that bring people together over a shared love of good food and a good time!”
According to chef (and artichoke pro) Cheatham, “artichokes shouldn’t pose a threat. You run your kitchen, not the artichokes. And you only need to make 3 or 4 so you should view it as practice, not punishment.”
Yes, Chef! You’ll need: a pair of kitchen shears, bowl of cold water with lemon juice, and a large pot for boiling the artichokes.
Ryan Hardy, executive chef/partner at Delicious Hospitality Group, also suggested donning some protective wear. “My #1 tip is to always wear gloves because artichokes are prickly—rubber gloves work perfectly for this.”
3. Trim & Soak.
Use a small knife to peel off the outer, tough artichoke leaves. Cut around the outside until you expose the lighter green leaves. Peel the outer, tough layer off the stem (with a regular vegetable peeler is fine), then lop off the top of the artichoke to remove any sharp, pointy leaves.
What’s the bowl of acidulated cold water for? Raleigh-based chef Renee Erickson offers an explanation: “Keep a bowl of lemon water next to you to keep the artichokes from turning brown. Plunge them into the lemon water once you have removed the leaves that you want to take off. It’s a good idea to think about what part you actually eat. That will help you feel OK removing so many leaves and cutting it down.”
Sound hard? We know. Raleigh-based chef Ashley Christensen feels your pain: “Artichokes are most difficult to process when raw. So for those who are nervous, one great preparation would be to poach them first in a seasoned poaching liquid (water, bay, salt, thyme, black peppercorns, garlic). Once they’re tender, you can tear away the tough petals and use a paring knife to gently peel off the exterior of the stem. Then cut the artichoke in half (or in quarters, depending on the size) and grill it.
But if this all of this still sounds too tedious, Cheatham suggests working, instead, with baby artichokes: “You just have to peel off one or two layers of the outer leaves, trim the tops, cut in half and sauté with a little salt and oil.”
4. Boil, Steam, or Simmer Until Tender.
Place the artichokes in a large pot, fill with water, and cover the pot. Bring the pot to a simmer and cook the artichokes until just tender—we’re looking for still-fresh-looking artichokes, not overly boiled artichokes. The cooking time will vary according to the size of your artichokes;
Chef and author of A Boat, a Whale, and a Walrus, Erickson, echoes Cheatham’s preference for young artichokes. “My favorite way to cook artichokes is the Roman style. Young artichokes braised with lots of olive oil, lemon, garlic and maybe thyme or bay leaf. The outer leaves are peeled down to where you see the light bright green, then the stem is shaved down till you see the tender interior. From there you cut the points off the leaves straight across, down to the where the lighter green starts. This is all edible. I love this with grilled lamb chops.”
But, her new favorite way to cook is coal-roasting stuffed artichokes. “I saw this at the market in Catania Sicily last year and it’s amazing. Start a fire and let the coals get to gray. Trim the tops of the artichokes and peel the stem. Then stuff/force a mixture of olive oil, parsley, garlic, lemon peel, salt and mint. Then place the artichokes cut side down in the coals. Then watch them roast. Once they are tender (test with a paring knife) they are ready to eat. Serve them with more of the salsa verde, alongside some grilled bread and burrata.” (I have yet to eat at one of Erickson’s restaurants, but given the amount of times I refer to her book, I feel like I already have.)
5. Serve with Your Sauce of Choice
When they’re tender, cut the artichokes in half, season and dress with vinaigrette, melted butter, or another favorite dipping sauce. Or, just plunk a head onto each plate. Dinner, done!
Christensen shares how her mom used to make them: “My mom would steam them whole and then we'd all enjoy pulling the petals off and dipping them into lemon-spiked mayo. It’s such a simple way to serve them, but so delicious. And more than that, I loved the communal aspect of it—everyone sitting around the table eating and talking and working together to get to the artichoke heart. Later on, as I began to cook professionally, I began to enjoy them as an element in more complex preparations. I especially love barigoule, the French braised artichoke dish, which I usually top with lots of fresh herbs and maybe some seared fish.”
Cheatham also remembers some of the more complex methods from past kitchen gigs: “In restaurants, we’re usually using full-sized artichokes, which are not as tender as baby artichokes to say the least. I’ve had to prepare a roux-based liquid (called a blanc) to hold and cook them in; peel several layers of leaves, clean them down to the heart, and cook the heart (with peeled stem still attached) until tender. From there, the artichokes have been confit, poached, stuffed, marinated, a la barigoule, panaché (sliced thinly and fanned out), and any other preparation one can dream up. All of which can be daunting as each batch usually called for 3 cases.”
5B. Extra credit, with heart.
Alright, so you shopped, trimmed, soaked, steamed, and dipped your ‘choke to great success. You might even consider yourself a master of the pull, dip, and bite. Where to go from here? Inward—to the heart.
Christensen’s restaurant, Beasley’s, was the first place I ate when I moved to North Carolina—and the last place I ate when I moved away. If you live in Raleigh, chances are that you’ve either dined in or heard about one of Christensen’s many, much-beloved restaurants, including Poole’s, Chuck’s, and Death & Taxes. Her bright influence on the city’s food scene earned her a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast in 2014 and Eater’s Chef of the Year Award in 2017.
One of her favorite ways to prepare artichokes is “by freezing artichoke hearts just enough to make them easy to slice, then cutting them paper thin on a mandolin and frying them like potato chips. We use them to top dishes like lamb carpaccio at Poole's Diner, which we also top with oil cured olives, roasted red pepper relish, and yogurt.”
5C. Extra extra credit.
Hardy, executive chef/partner at Delicious Hospitality Group, the team behind places like Charlie Bird, Legacy Records, and, what led me to him, Pasquale Jones—where Tim Caspare is the chef de cuisine. Hardy’s work at Little Nell in Aspen earned him four James Beard Award nominations for Best Chef: Southwest. Before Pasquale, Caspare has worked in iconic kitchens like Eleven Madison Park in New York City and Quince and Cotogna in San Francisco. After trying an artichoke cappelletti—or “little hats,” homemade pasta—with stinging nettle, pecorino, and honey at Pasquale Jones, I couldn’t not reach out.
“Artichokes are my favorite vegetable,” Caspare writes. “When I founded Rendezvous Organic Farm in Colorado, spawning a market for locally grown pork, lamb, chicken, cheese, charcuterie and heirloom Italian produce previously unavailable in the U.S., the first thing we planted was artichokes. I love to saute them with lemon, mint, olive oil, garlic and white wine.”
So, about the artichoke pasta? “The artichoke cappelletti currently on the menu at Pasquale Jones is an expression of thistles in the early spring,” Caspare muses. “This time of year, I’m always inspired by produce that comes before the spring season is in full bloom: pea shoots, fava leaves, nettles, etc. Artichokes, nettles, and cardoons are sort of in the same family... flowering plants with thistles. Working with an interesting honey crossed my mind and I thought a cardoon honey would complete the picture (because cardoons are in the same family as artichokes). I chose to settle on a terrific corbezzolo honey from Sardinia because of its bitterness. We finish the pasta with bee pollen and pecorino.”
“For the pasta filling, we trim large artichoke hearts and cook them in olive oil in a rondeau on medium heat. We add a parchment paper cartouche and allow to cook until very well caramelized. After that, we deglaze with wine to capture all that savory fond. Then we cook out the wine and pass everything through a tamis. We blend in ricotta cheese with pecorino and Parmigiano-Reggiano.”
Hardy offers a way to ensure that none of your kitchen effort goes to waste. “My trick is to use the outer leaves that I peel off to make broth. Throw the leaves and a parmesan rind in a broth and simmer for a bit. Once your broth is ready, add potatoes (and any other vegetables) and sprinkle with Parmesan. Makes for a tasty soup!”