feasting at home: Lessons from an Artichoke

April 28, 2012

Lessons from an Artichoke

Grilled Artichokes w/ Lemon Garlic Caper Marinade and Basil Aioli

What is so vulnerable, I wonder, that must need such safeguarding, such armor?  When you hold the artichoke in your hand, the first thing you notice are the waxy prickly leaves, brilliantly designed to keep predators out. They can be sharp, injurious even, if not handled with care. Still, you can not help but see how beautiful they are, thorns and all, with their perfect symmetry and silvery hues of greens and purples. Their leaves curl tightly inward, holding something precious inside.  At the center of the choke, lies the heart, its true essence. Tucked away and concealed from the outside world, the heart remains hidden, and eludes many.

Are we not so different from the artichoke?  What prickles and thorns we grow, to shelter and shield our most true and tender places.  Our defenses, wisely and beautifully crafted in times of need, have preserved us. They have kept us safe. And to this, we must give our respect and our thanks. But what, I wonder, do we give up, everyday, in return for this safety?

As I try to describe the taste of fresh artichoke, truthfully, I find it difficult. It tastes like nothing else I can think of.  Interestingly, a molecule found in the leaves of the artichokes called cynarin has been found to change the way our taste buds, actually taste. It inhibits our taste receptors and as a result  other foods actually taste sweeter.

Perhaps, a little token of appreciation. A gift. A simple way of saying, thanks for seeing beyond my thorns.

Artichokes are a perennial thistle, the bud from which the flower blossoms. Originally they came from North Africa, making their way to France, Greece and Italy and Spain. Today, Italy and Egypt are the top producers. In the states, artichokes are predominantly grown in the Monterrey area in California. These days you can find artichokes year round, but their peak growing season is in the spring, and this is when they taste their best.

A tip: when you boil or steam artichokes, leave the lid off, so the acids can boil out and evaporate. This helps prevent them from turning brown. I also add a generous amount of salt and a whole lemon to the pot to help with this. Steaming is also a great way to tenderize artichokes. Cut the stem off flat and set in the bottom of a pot. Pour water to half way up the choke. It does take longer to cook them this way, but with good results.

After the artichokes are tender, drop them in a cold water bath for a few minutes, for easier handling. With a very sharp knife, cut in half and scoop out the small inner fibers with a spoon.

Cut them into quarters, insides faced down on a cutting board, then turn them over and brush or spoon reserved herb mixture on the insides of each one.

Grill on a preheated grill set at Medium,  placed with insides faced down, for 5 minutes with the lid on.
Don't disturb them.

You could also add your leftover 1/2 lemon ( cut into thin slices) on the grill as well, for a garnish.

Platter up and serve with a basil aioli. (Try substituting with Vegenaise for a great vegan option)

I am reminded by the artichoke, that inside all of us lies something tender and vulnerable regardless of our sometimes opposite exterior. Often, the more prickly the person, the more need for compassion. This is difficult to muster when we feel personally injured by their thorns. But it's not personal. Like the artichoke,  these defenses were created for a very valid reason, which, most likely have nothing to do with us.

But what sinks in most of all as I hold this choke in my hand, is, that we must forgive ourselves, daily, for our own prickly and imperfect ways. This simple act frees us from the tyranny of self judgment, which only helps to keep us closed up tight. Respectfully acknowledging each protective layer we have ingeniously crafted, in a nonjudgemental way, slowly and gently opens us. And it creates within us the capacity to do this with others.

Grilled Artichokes with Basil Aioli
serves 4-6

4 medium sized artichokes- trimmed
2 lemons
2 garlic cloves
2 bay leaves ( optional)

Drizzle and Aioli:
1  packed C Italian parsley
1/4 packed C Basil
1/2 C olive oil
1 T capers
salt, pepper
1 garlic clove
mayo or Vegenaise

Put a big Pot of water (12  Cups) on the stove, add:
Squeeze 1 whole  lemon  ( squeeze and then throw in both halves)
2 smashed garlic cloves
2 T salt and 2 bay leaves
bring to a boil
Prep artichokes:

With a very sharp knife, trim off the stems, trim 1/2 to 1 inch off the tops and remove small outer leaves.
Add artichokes, bring to a boil, turn down heat to a simmer, and simmer on med - low for 20-30 minutes. Cook until just tender. Al dente. If your artichokes are very small this may take 20 minutes...if huge, longer. Do not cover.

Make Marinade and Aioli:
In food processor add:
1 C packed italian parsley
1/4 C packed basil
( if you like, you could add more basil and less parsley or really any combination of tender herb)
zest of one lemon (save the lemon)
2 small clove garlic
1 T capers
pulse 5 times until nicely chopped.

Add 1/3 C olive oil
1/8 C lemon juice - or half a lemon, ( and slice the other half into slices for a garnish, set aside)
salt to taste, pinch pepper
Pulse a few times and scrape down sides and pulse a few more times more.
Remove a 1/4 Cup and set aside for the Marinade. You will use this to brush on the artichokes before you grill. Alternatively, you could just use the marinade and skip the aioli, as the artichokes will be flavorful with just the marinade.

To the remaining, still in the food processor, add 1/3 to 1/2 cup mayo or veganaise (depending on how flavorful you like your aioli)  the more you add, the less bold it will be.
Pulse a few times till just blended. 
Adjust for salt.
This is your dipping sauce.

Heat up your grill.
Remove artichokes from the large pot and place in bowl of cold water for a few mins.
Drain well, holding them upside down and gently squeeze out excess water.
With a sharp knife, Halve them, scoop out fibrous insides, then quarter ( insides faced down on cutting board)
Brush or spoon each quarter on the inside with a little herb drizzle that you have set aside.
Place artichokes, inside faced down on a hot grill along with a few lemon slices.
Turn Grill to Medium and cover, and do not touch them for  5-6 minutes. If you are using small artichokes, it may be four minutes, This will give them nice grill marks.

Remove, drizzle a little olive oil over and  and serve with Basil aioli.