We all have cooking tasks that, for whatever reason, we simply refuse to do — the thought of doing them prompts feelings of dread or disdain. When I think of the arrival of spring each year, I’m reminded of my personal hell: preparing artichokes.
It’s prime artichoke season and although I love seeing the pyramidal stacks at farmers markets and encourage anyone curious to cook with them, it won’t be me. I know that won’t win me popularity points with a California readership, but let me explain.
I grew up in the South at a time when artichokes came only in cans or jars or from the freezer. My mother would always make what she called “artichoke tea sandwiches” with canned artichokes, chopping and mixing them with mayonnaise and dry ranch dressing seasoning before slathering the mix between two slices of wheat bread. She’d trim the crusts, as you must do for tea sandwiches, and set them in the fridge to get nice and cold before a party. The result was kind of like a vegan tuna fish sandwich before I knew such a thing existed.
In culinary school, when I first encountered fresh artichokes and their impenetrable outer petals — botanically, the part we eat is an immature flower bud — I was intrigued. But when I learned that before they are cooked they must be “turned” — painstakingly trimmed, pared, de-spiked and de-choked, all before they turn brown from air exposure — I felt … exhausted. The ratio of preparation work to taste payoff was egregiously unbalanced.
I appreciated knowing where the canned iterations came from but with my eyes opened to what it took to get them there, I vowed to never subjugate myself to such masochism again. Artichokes would just be something I didn’t eat again, and I swore off cooking them unless forced to for work.
Of course, I learned later that you can boil or steam the whole thing and break off the petals with ease, one by one, to dip in butter or mayonnaise, but even that seemed like too much work to someone not raised on the practice. And as much as I now understand the value of the work that goes into preparing them for cooking, I place a higher value on the time it takes to cook almost anything else.
Now firmly entrenched in eating artichokes only from their pre-cooked forms, I rediscovered how much I love them and how wonderful they are. But like crab and oysters, artichokes rest in a sort of alien realm where their distinct flavor and form defy neat categorization. Instead of treating them as a “vegetable” — they possess neither the virtuousness of the dark leafy greens nor the fiber-wellness cachet of brassicas — I serve them only as an appetizer, hors d’oeuvre or starter course, where they can show off their individuality.
For a great way to start a summer picnic, I lean on those aforementioned tea sandwiches my mom made, except I make them with more fresh herbs and a lot less mayonnaise. I cut them into finger-size blocks, as intended, and pass them around to guests in the cold Tupperware container I brought them in.
If I’m entertaining at home, I pull out the simplest appetizer of all time, an idea I got from my friend Helen Rosner. She pours a jar of oil-marinated artichoke quarters onto a baking sheet and bakes them in a high-heat oven until the artichokes sizzle and crisp in the oil.
In the dip world, spinach and artichoke reign supreme. As wonderful as that pairing is, there are plenty of recipes out there for great versions, from bubbling hot dishes loaded with cheese and cream to easy vegan iterations stuffed in bread bowls. I like artichokes in a simpler, less dairy-dependent mode. Taking inspiration from another Mediterranean world staple, I use grilled, smoky artichokes as a base for a baba ghannouj-like dip.
I blend char-speckled grilled and marinated artichoke quarters — easily found in grocery stores or you can use Helen’s “oven-fried” version — with lemon juice, garlic, cumin, tahini and olive oil until silky smooth. Slightly more tangy in taste than the eggplant version, the dip is simpler than the traditional since you’re not having to blacken and peel eggplants.
I especially love an elegant tart. I lop off the bottoms from canned artichoke hearts and puree them with herbs, garlic and wine, then add an egg to bind everything together. This is spread over a rectangle of puff pastry then topped with the artichokes’ petal clusters arranged in a striking pattern. Once baked to a puffed and crunchy golden brown, the tart delivers the same elegant appearance for even less effort.
Artichokes À La Baba Ghanouj
Time: 10 minutes. Yields: Makes 2 cups
I add a little yogurt here to add more tang and give the spread a creamier texture. If you can’t find pre-grilled artichokes, use the roasted artichokes from “Oven-Fried” Artichokes, or make your own by grilling halved whole artichokes until tender and blackened, then scooping out the tender hearts.
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon ground cumin
2 large garlic cloves
8 ounces store-bought grilled marinated artichoke hearts or quarters, drained, or homemade roasted (see note above)
¼ cup everyday olive oil, plus more for drizzling
¼ cup plain, full-fat Greek yogurt or vegan cashew yogurt (optional)
3 tablespoons well-mixed tahini
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
In the bowl of a food processor, combine the lemon juice, cumin and garlic and pulse to break up the garlic; let stand for 5 minutes. Add three-quarters (or 6 ounces) of the artichokes, the olive oil, yogurt, if using, and tahini, and purée until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Scrape the dip into a shallow bowl and use the back of a spoon to spread the puree over the bottom, creating a raised edge at the perimeter. Scatter the reserved artichoke quarters over the dip then drizzle everything with olive oil and sprinkle with parsley. Serve warm or at room temperature with pita chips.
Make Ahead: Store the dip in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Cold Artichoke Tea Sandwiches
Time: 30 minutes, plus 2 hours chilling. Yields: Serves 8
The key to these sandwiches is serving them ice cold from the fridge. squishy sandwich bread works best here but you can use any type you like, or even serve the sandwich filling open-faced on toast.
¾ cup mayonnaise
¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
2 tablespoons finely chopped dill
2 tablespoons finely chopped chives
1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon sweet paprika
1 small or ½ large shallot, minced (¼ cup)
1 almond-sized garlic clove
8 ounces (drained weight) canned or jarred artichoke hearts, rinsed and well-drained
16 slices whole-wheat or white soft sandwich bread or pain de mie
Salty potato chips, for serving
In a large bowl, combine the mayonnaise, parsley, dill, chives, salt, pepper, paprika and shallot. Using a microplane grater, grate the garlic into the mayonnaise mixture. Using a food processor or a knife, pulse to finely chop the artichoke hearts. Add the artichokes to the mayonnaise mixture and stir to combine.
Arrange 8 slices of bread on a work surface and divide the artichoke filling among them, about 3 to 4 tablespoons each. Spread the filling to within ¼-inch of the edges of the bread. Top each with another slice of bread, then transfer to a baking sheet and cover with plastic wrap or foil. Refrigerate for at least two hours or up to two days.
Use a serrated knife to remove the crusts from the sandwiches, then halve, either diagonally to make two triangles or into neat rectangles. Serve the sandwiches chilled, with potato chips.
Make Ahead: Wrapped in plastic wrap, the sandwiches will keep in the refrigerator for up to 3 days.
Carciofi Alla Romana Tart
Time: 1 hour 15 minutes. Yields: Serves 8 to 12
artichokes are used two ways: the bottoms as a puree for the filling and the petal clusters arranged over the top for a beautiful presentation. Though the filling is intentionally dairy-free since the puff pastry provides plenty of richness, if you want to add cheese you can scatter 2 ounces of crumbly feta or goat cheese or thin slices of mozzarella on top before baking.
1½ pounds (drained weight) canned or jarred artichoke hearts (about 18 total)
1 package (14 ounces) all-butter puff pastry, such as Dufour, thawed if frozen
¼ cup finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
¼ cup finely chopped mint
3 almond-size garlic cloves
¼ cup everyday olive oil
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt
1 large egg
Freshly cracked black pepper
1 small lemon or ½ large lemon
Rinse the canned artichoke hearts in cold running water then drain. Arrange the hearts, petal side down, on a double thick layer of paper towels and let drain for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the sheet of puff pastry on a lightly floured work surface and use a rolling pin to smooth it into a 15-by-12-inch rectangle. Transfer the rectangle to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet. Using a paring knife, lightly score a ½-inch border on each side of the pastry. Transfer to the refrigerator until ready to use.
Combine the parsley and mint in a medium bowl. Remove 2 tablespoons of the combined herbs and place in a small bowl; reserve in the refrigerator until ready to use. Using a microplane grater, finely grate the garlic cloves into the bowl of herbs. Stir in 2 tablespoons olive oil, the wine and kosher salt.
After the artichokes have drained well, one by one, tip the hearts over onto their sides and cut at the indentation where the petals meet the bottom of the heart to separate them (it should be roughly at the halfway point of their length). As you cut off the bottom, transfer them (you should have about 10 ounces) to a food processor or blender and flip the petal clusters right side up once more to continue draining. Repeat with all the artichoke hearts.
Add the egg to the artichoke bottoms and process until mostly smooth. Scrape the artichoke puree into the bowl of herbs and stir to combine. Season with pepper.
Heat the oven to 425 degrees. Remove the pastry sheet from the fridge and scrape the artichoke puree in the center. Using an offset spatula or dinner knife, spread the puree evenly over the pastry, staying within the score lines. Make sure the puree is an even thickness and not domed in the center.
Using the palm of your hand, flatten each artichoke petal cluster into a ½-inch-thick disk (the clusters should not fall apart) then transfer each disk to pastry, arranging them evenly over the puree. Drizzle the clusters and puree with the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil and season liberally with cracked black pepper.
Bake, rotating the pan halfway through cooking, until the edges are golden brown and puffed and the artichokes are lightly browned at the edges of their petals, about 30 minutes. Transfer the baking sheet to a rack. Immediately zest the lemon evenly over the top of the tart and sprinkle with the reserved chopped herbs. Serve warm or at room temperature.