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Artichoke season has arrived; discover its 'mysterious' flavor

Add artichokes to the menu for some "spring-green flavor. (Amy Thielen / For the Enterprise)

Fresh artichokes are in season now. To some people, paring an artichoke down to its choke is as intimidating as peeling a suit of armor off a soldier. Add to that, every petal has a prickly tip that never fails to find a fat fingertip.

But, seriously, they're worth the effort. Like asparagus, artichokes have a very spring-green flavor, with a latent, fleeting sweetness that is hard to locate on the palate. They're at once subtle and unforgettable, and they do well when juxtaposed with strong flavors: cured olives, prosciutto, lemon, garlic.

In the winter I often reach for canned artichokes, but their flavor is entirely different, as they've already been pickled. Fresh artichokes taste flatter, denser, richer, and more mysterious.

It's possible to grow your own artichokes in Minnesota. We did it once; it requires lots of babying and fretting, but if you start them inside early and then replant them outside and then continue to coddle them you will see one large artichoke bud rising in the late summer, flanked by two smaller artichokes - looking like the queen's scepters - on either side.

Three artichokes per plant: not much yield for all that work, true, but if you successfully overwinter them (how? I can't say for sure because ours didn't make it), they will in theory produce again in the late fall and the early spring. In warmer parts of the world they are weed-like perennials, and a true measure of their yield depends on accumulation.

Seems to me that the Italians must grow fields of them; they use them not like the precious three-dollar globes we buy, but as if they have a wagon full of them out back that they're working their way through. They treat them less like a delicacy and more like the overdeveloped buds of the thistle that they are--and Italians throw artichokes into everything: stews, pastas, risottos, antipasti.

For our purposes, I'm giving a couple of recipes that use the large globe artichokes we can buy here. First, a simple steamed artichoke with a rich, homemade garlic aioli. Here, the steaming is simple but the sauce takes a well-deserved minute.

The other recipe, for Carciofi all Giudia, or Jewish fried artichokes, is one of those recipes that I've mentally filed for years but have never tried. I suppose the large amount of olive oil required put me off. But I finally tried it, and they're amazing: crispy, decadent, the essence of spring.

Steamed Artichokes with Aioli: Homemade Garlic Mayonnaise

Serves 4 as a starter

Aioli makes 1 cup

1 egg

2 garlic cloves, peeled

One-fourth teaspoon salt

3 teaspoons lemon juice

One-half cup olive oil

One-half cup canola oil

2 large globe artichokes

Heat a small pan of water to boiling and add the egg. Boil two minutes and then immerse the egg into icy water until cool. Crack and remove just the yolk. Reserve.

You can use either a food processor or a mortar and pestle for this recipe. I'll give the mortar version, but follow the same directions for the food processor, making sure to stop and scrape down the sides often.

In a large mortar, crush the garlic cloves with the salt until pureed. Add the yolk and pound to combine. Combine the olive and canola oils in a liquid measuring cup and add the oil drop by drop, pounding to keep a smooth emulsified sauce. As it gets thick, add the lemon juice in a drizzle. Keep adding oil until all has been incorporated. It will be thick like mayonnaise. Add a little water if it gets too thick. Use immediately or refrigerate.

For the artichokes, wash them under cold running water. Cut off stems at base and remove small bottom leaves. Stand artichokes upright in a steamer large enough to hold snugly. Add 1 teaspoon salt and two to three inches water. Cover, bring the water to a boil and steam gently 35 to 45 minutes or until base can be pierced easily with fork. (Add a little more boiling water if needed.) Turn artichokes upside down to drain. Serve immediately with the aioli.

Artichokes "alla Giudia"

From Italian Regional Cooking,

by Ada Boni

4 artichokes

approximately 1 cup olive oil



lemon wedges + one-half fresh lemon

Pick a small, wide, high-sided sauté pan for cooking the artichokes, something small enough so that the olive oil measures one inch deep.

Before you begin cleaning the artichokes, squeeze half a lemon into a bowl of cold water. Remove the slightly tougher leaves of the artichokes by bending them backwards until they snap. Starting at the bottom, remove two layers all the way around. Shorten the stems and with a paring knife, pare off the tough green skin from the stem and the bottom of the artichoke.

As you go, rub all cut surfaces with the lemon or drop into the acidulated water.

With a sharp knife, lop two inches off the top of each artichoke.

Take each artichoke and carefully flatten out the leaves slightly with your hands to the shape of a flower. Season them inside with salt and pepper.

Pour the olive oil into a pan until it reaches one inch. Arrange the artichokes in it, side by side, stalk side up. Cover with an offset lid. Simmer the artichokes until tender, keeping the oil at an even temperature and turning the artichokes round and round in the pan so that they all cook evenly.

When they are tender, uncover and turn them stalk side up again and press them down with a spatula to the bottom of the pan so that their leaves spread out. Fry for 10 minutes, or until their undersides turn dark golden brown. By this time they should look like bronze chrysanthemums, with flattened-out leaves. At the last moment dip your hand in cold water and, keeping as far away from the stove as possible, shake the cold water over the boiling oil in which the artichokes are cooking. (It will splatter a bit.) This will complete the crisping of the outer shell which is typical of artichokes cooked in this manner. Leave over the heat for 2 minutes longer, then drain well, arrange on a dish and serve very hot, with lemon wedges.