For me, the artichoke used to be an abstract horticultural object—a bodiless head, existing in its own peculiar realm detached from other vegetables, part pine cone, part tropical flower, part grade-B sci-fi prop. Then I found one poking up in the middle of a spiky spread of leaves in my mother’s garden in Connecticut earlier this month. We had mostly forgotten about the plant whose seed we had buried in the soil two years ago, a seed that each year had produced that proud-looking foliage, an unapologetic hog of personal space, admirable in its own right, but no artichokes. Until now.
The timing for the artichoke’s grand entrance seemingly employed a dose of well-played drama, but its most memorable statement was the plant itself. There was something rewarding about watching an artichoke growing. Pointing toward the sky from the center of the plant, the globe was no longer a severed head of curiosity, and its life cycle was finally laid bare. Yes, that thing really is from of this world, despite its unearthly appearance—it’s a variety of species of thistle in the same family as more familiar plants such as the sunflower and the dandelion. It reinforced my connection with the planet, ever tenuous since I moved away from rural life to city life over twenty years ago.
All the more reason to eat it. But there are considerations to make in that department. The artichoke is the Price Is Right of vegetables: to harvest it, you have to guess how big the globe will get without going over the size at which the globe starts to open and bloom, because at that point, it becomes too tough to eat. And you want the globe to get as big as it can because as any artichoke fan knows, the heart, the only edible part along with a little of the stem, is pitifully small compared to the size of the globe itself. Sometimes the heart stands barely taller than a stack of a half dozen poker chips. So much work for so little reward. No wonder canned artichoke hearts are more popular than fresh globes. But with the former, you have to accept a flat, metallic flavor as your price for convenience.
I harvested our first artichoke when it was about the size of a large lemon (not sure if that was good enough to win the showcase showdown), so I am generous in calling it a side dish, let alone one for two adults and a child. After opening the globe with my fingers and stuffing it with slivers of garlic and adding olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and then wrapping it in foil, I roasted it for an hour and served it with a yellow bell pepper/chili pepper cream sauce for dipping the base of the petals, where little pieces of the heart hunker down.
The stack of spent petals filled a whole plate when we finally reached the prize of the artichoke, the heart. It was dense yet tender, free of bitterness, and patty-shaped, as if it were trying to pass as a subtly sweet veggie burger. I could have eaten it in one bite. Better yet, I could have combined the two previous observations and made an artichoke heart slider out of it. That may happen in the future, but this time, I cut it up like the world’s smallest pizza.
So what did the Chowder Boy think of it? The first spoonful I served him contained some of the pepper sauce, whose spiciness he did not seem to care for. But when I served him a piece of the heart by itself, he engaged his pointing finger towards the heart to indicate “keep it coming.” Sadly, only one piece of the heart remained, and I gave it to him. Sorry, son, you’ll have to wait until the next one is ready for harvest, just like the rest of us.