I don't think there is a person alive who hasn't scheduled a family get together and then wished they hadn't. I'm sure this happens for all sorts of reasons. But just to be clear here, (and because my family reads this blog!), I never regret the occasions --I just regret it when I invite everyone over and then life decides it is going to suck away all of my free time leading up to the night. Thats just what happened this past weekend. I thought we had no plans so I would have the whole weekend to plan, shop, and cook. Turns out we had plans that were going to occupy me and leave me with only a scant couple of hours to throw it all together. Add to that the fact that I had been feeling a little under the weather and I was regretting my decision to have the gang over for one last casual dinner before all the wedding festivities start to take over our lives. Then I remembered that my 'secret weapon' was in season: the artichoke.
The best part of serving a good artichoke its not in how it is prepared but in the very act of its eating. There is something quite disarming about a group of people eating artichokes that make it the perfect dish to serve your own family. All pretense, inhibition, expectation, or awkward silences go away as your guests pull apart the artichokes with their hands and scrape the flesh from its leaves with their teeth. It is as if this allowable deviation from normal table manners puts everyone in a good mood! I enjoy discerning various personality traits by watching how each guest approaches the task of stripping back the artichoke to get to the delicacy of its heart. And even though I put out a large platter in the middle of the table so everyone can just chuck the leaves onto it, there are still those (the more uptight and control oriented who shall go nameless) in the group who will fight this urge and attempt to stack them evenly on their plate. Order at all costs! Eventually, even they give up and join the party!
I'm told that this year was the "perfect storm" as far as weather and crop plantings go as artichokes are more abundant and as flavorful as ever right now. You won't have to twist my arm. I'll be dusting off some of my favorite recipes and serving them up a lot so stay tuned. Of course, stuffing them with breadcrumbs is very popular, easy to do, and guests are quite impressed with it. Also, if you remove the chokes you can stuff them with all sorts of goodies making them ideal for re-purposing leftover veggies. Leslie makes a light version that is definitely worth trying and Greg even fries up the minis in case you were wondering what you are supposed to do with those cuties when you next encounter them at the farmer's market.
Personally, I like them at their simplest: steamed. I steamed these in a couple inches of water with a liberal amount of lemon juice, peel and salt in the water. If you like they turn out great just plain but its so easy to add a few cloves of garlic, a couple sprigs of rosemary, or even steam them in chicken broth. (That is good for certain stuffed 'choke's too!) Slice off the stem and about 1/2" of the top, snip the leaves (or not) and rub the cut ends with lemon to keep them from browning. (Or not. You really can't mess these up.) Steam for 30-40 minutes until the hearts are tender. Test by pushing a sharp knife into them from the top. It should go through easily. Or pull off a leaf and try it. Let them cool. I like to plunge them into ice water to refresh and cool them down rapidly so they don't get too mushy but this really isn't necessary. I also think they are best when cooled down to room temperature or with an ever-so-slight chill. This is another plus when you want no-fuss food for company as they can just sit out while until its time to eat. Like these:
But do get creative with dipping sauces. Lemon mayo (called "aioli' amongst the foodie hoi polloi) or melted butter are the standards and while you really ought to offer these for the 'purists' at your table you should also serve an alternative or two since they are so easy to dream up. Put a dash of rosemary in your melted butter or a drizzle of dijon mustard. Or lemon. Add a dab of pesto to your mayo or just dice up some shallots or green onion to put in it. My mother gave me some smoked tomato pesto from a restaurant she had visited recently and a dab of that in our mayo this time around was quite a hit.