An 80-year-old neighbor in Cancale introduced me to a revolutionary concept: Eating a whole, steamed artichoke as a main course, not just an appetizer. We were chatting about the plain, simple wonderfulness of artichokes when they come into season (Artichokes are a BIG DEAL in Brittany, the top growing region for the vegetables in France.), and she admitted that one of her favorite meals is an artichoke with vinaigrette, followed by a bowl of soup or a bit of cheese, if she’s still hungry.
You could have knocked me over with a feather. This is a woman whose generation is one of multi-course meals at lunch and dinner. A woman who thinks nothing of poaching a whole fish just for herself or of opening a half-dozen oysters for an everyday appetizer. But as she said, a steamed artichoke is very filling. And even though it requires nothing but a pot of boiling water to prepare and perhaps a little something to dip the leaves in and drizzle over the base, a steamed artichoke is special. It’s elegant. It’s an enormous edible flower that tastes like nothing else in this world. (Artichokes are members of the thistle family.) It should be the pièce de résistance of a meal.
And artichokes are good for you. A whole artichoke contains four grams of protein along with a good dose of iron (not too shabby for a vegetable), 10 grams of fiber, as much potassium as a small banana, and more antioxidants than cranberries or blueberries. (The magazine editor in me can’t help but include those health-oriented details.) At 60 calories a pop, you don’t have to feel guilty about the vinaigrette (French-style), drawn butter (American-style), hollandaise (Who doesn’t love hollandaise?), Laurie Colwin’s Green Sauce (my fave) or other sauce you choose to eat with it.
After years of following instructions to trim artichoke leaves and boil artichokes in large pots of lemon water, both of which made cooking artichokes seem like a real chore, I now do neither. Artichokes are so much prettier when the leaves are left intact. (I figure most people are smart enough to cast aside the ones that are too tough.) Steaming, rather than boiling, speeds things up since there’s no waiting for gallons of water to boil. Plus, if for some reason you do something dump like I did and forget your artichokes on the stove, an extra half hour or so of cooking won’t matter much and your artichokes won’t fall apart the way overcooked boiled artichokes will. These two shortcuts mean you can also skip the lemon. There’s no need to rub the leaves to keep them from browning if they haven’t been cut, and no reason to add lemon to the water if it’s not even going to touch the artichokes.
Now, for a quick recipe, a French classic with a little tarragon twist. Steam your artichokes and make the vinaigrette ahead, and you have a light, fast lunch or dinner that’s all ready to go. (Bowl of soup and/or bit of cheese, optional.)
Steamed Artichokes with Lemon-Tarragon Vinaigrette
4 artichokes, stems broken off at base (breaking, rather than cutting, pulls out the tough fibers)
1/4 cup olive oil
¼ cup vegetable oil
¼ cup fresh lemon juice
2 Tbs. Dijon mustard
1 Tbs. crumbled dried tarragon
Place the artichokes in a steamer basket over 2 inches of water in a large pot. Cover, and steam 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until an outer leaf can be pulled off easily.
Meanwhile, place all the remaining ingredients in a jar, close the lid, and shake the vinaigrette until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper. Let stand at least 15 minutes to allow flavors to develop
Serve the artichokes with the vinaigrette.