Alice Waters wrote in Chez Panisse Vegetables, “An artichoke should be harvested and eaten only in the bloom of its youth, never in its maturity. Therefore look for artichokes…that are unblemished, tightly closed, entirely unopened, and vibrant in color, whether lime-green or bright green or purple.” I was too busy in the weeks before the Mexico trip to harvest my first basket of artichokes. Their bellies swelled and the tips of their leaves began to unfurl. There was no time to cut them, clean them and prepare a dish worthy of their homegrown glory. That ship had sailed, but I refused to waste five otherwise beautiful orbs.
When I returned from the digestive debauchery of Mexico, I ate salad and kale for a few days until I was ready to face food again. I hoped the artichokes would still be edible. A colony of ants was invading clusters of aphids for claim to each artichoke fortress. I did not want to boil them and find bugs as I was eating, so these would need the full treatment. I clipped the largest artichokes with a few inches of stem, and dunked them in a sink filled with water and vinegar to soak for an hour. I thought this might kill the pests, and it did! They washed off in the water, and I did not have to pick through yucky, buggy leaves.
I did not take pictures. I thought, “Meh, I just won’t write about this one.” I was embarrassed that the artichokes were past their prime. Looking back, those were some impressive chokes for my first substantial harvest and I wish I could share them. They made a delicious gratin.
My artichokes were fibrous and tough to clean. I sheared off all of the leaves, including parts of the heart that would normally be kept but were too spiny. The hearts, scooped clean of their silky matting of choke, were only narrow disks half an inch thick and three to four inches wide. The part where the stem met the heart was tough, so I cut the hearts into thin strips avoiding the center meat and dunked them immediately into lemon-water. So much effort for a scant two cups full. I decided to peel and slice three small potatoes as well. I layered potatoes, artichokes, thyme, salt, pepper and a sprinkling of Parmesan. I pressed down on the layers to pack everything tightly for even cooking, poured 1/4 – 1/2 cup of cream over the top and baked it at 375 degrees for 45 minutes.
Whenever an end of baguette is too hard to eat, I grate it into a bag that I keep in the freezer. I toasted some of these breadcrumbs in a tablespoon or two of butter and sprinkled them over the gratin, cooking it again until the top was golden. Mmm, mmm, mmm. The crust was crunchy, the potatoes creamy, and the bold artichoke flavor shouldered through the heavier ingredients. Artichokes are famously difficult to pair with wine, but these were rich and mellow and went just fine with a cheap bottle of Tempranillo and one of Carlos’ smoked chorizo sausages. Oh, and more kale.