As a child I wanted swordfish and artichokes for my birthday dinner. I can’t imagine now what came over me to ask for swordfish (swordfish!), but I still crave artichokes every spring. My mother, who learned to cook by watching Julia Child on television, prepared artichokes as Julia instructed: steaming them whole, upside down, until tender. Perhaps I loved them because my mother treated them with such respect, being expensive and appearing in northern New England groceries so briefly. Perhaps I loved that they came all the way from California.
More likely it was the pool of lemony butter and the messy business of taking the flower apart, leaf by leaf, dipping the soft ends into the butter, scraping them with my teeth, and then tossing them into a big communal bowl in the center of the table. It wasn’t often we got to throw food around as part of dinner. And then there was the fun of uncovering the heart hiding beneath the fuzzy choke. I would let it swim about in the butter while keeping an eye on my poacher brother, and then cut it into bits to make it last.
Back then, it didn’t dawn on me that some people had never seen one, that not everyone had mothers experimenting in the kitchen or fathers draping their gardens in seaweed every winter to build the soil structure. My husband, who grew up in Wisconsin, saw his first artichoke when he came East for college. My sister-in-law from the Northeast Kingdom first encountered them at our table when my brother brought her home to meet us. She had no idea what to do with the giant bud on her plate. Too embarrassed to reveal her befuddlement, she watched and imitated, peeling off a leaf and popping it in her mouth. What she didn’t know was that you didn’t eat the toughest outer leaves, nor did you bite off the ends and chew them. Only after my mother finally noticed her chomping away did she sort out what we thought everyone just knew.
When I lived in California briefly in my twenties, I saw them growing in vast fields stretching across a hot flat valley, tall bushy plants with huge serrated leaves, the artichokes held at the end of branches. In the stores out there they were the size of small cabbages. In France and Italy, I discovered a whole range of sizes and varieties—some tiny and purple, some with long, tapering leaves, others squat round balls. And I found out that there were many, many more ways to prepare them than steaming them whole.
In recent years they seem to be in the market from March until November. It seems strange to buy artichokes in September, like buying apples in May or oranges in August. And so I never do. But I’ve also discovered I can grow them! In Vermont. Who knew? A couple of springs ago I stumbled upon artichoke seedlings at the greenhouses of Golden Russet Farm. Curious and hopeful, I bought a couple and placed them in the center of my garden’s sunniest raised bed.
That first year I didn’t eat a single one. Other than jack-in-the-beanstalk-sized sunflowers planted by birds, I had never seen anything as dramatic in my garden as an artichoke bursting onto flower. I couldn’t bear to cut even one. Instead I took photos as the buds cracked open to reveal an extraordinary purple flower as fuzzy as the choke inside. I left those first ones to dry through the winter. Only then did it dawn on me that artichokes are giant thistles not so different-except for the lack of nasty thorns–from those that snag my clothes in scrubby parts of our land. Once I made that connection to a local, native species, I felt okay about growing what I once thought was a rare treat from far away. My whole notion of local opened up with those flowers.
The next year I grew ruthless and cut them all down—and learned that nothing compares to getting them into the cooking pot a minute after harvest. The flavor and texture are incomparable. It’s like flying to Italy via Vermont. I started reading about their Moroccan origins and place in Mediterranean cuisine. I experimented with recipes, from raw salads (delicious!) to braised baby artichokes with preserved lemons. This season I plan to fry them in the Roman-Jewish way and to stuff a few with ground lamb. I also plan to be more balanced in my approach—harvesting some and leaving some. I’ve even thought about trying to winter one over by growing it in a pot and hauling it in come fall the way I do with rosemary, geraniums, fuschia and figs.
I’m planting artichokes today–from seed. They’ll take 95 days to reach maturitywhich means I’ll be lowering the first ones into the sauté pan round about mid-July. Until then, I’ll gladly head to town in search of those plump buds that herald the arrival of spring as surely as a red-winged blackbird trilling by the pond.