BOSTON — If all the vegetables in the supermarket, the artichoke is one of the most unusual. A green bud of a thistle with intimidating thorny tips, that looks more like a table decoration than something you'd want to pop in your mouth.
Except for the Greeks and Romans, who considered artichokes preserved in honey and vinegar a luxury item reserved for royalty, most other cultures were baffled by the prickly vegetable. Artichokes are difficult to cultivate since harvest time must be precise. Most civilizations found this too much of a hassle and besides, they couldn't figure out exactly how to prepare them. When the Roman Empire fell, so did the artichoke - cast into obscurity for centuries.
It wasn't until the 16th century when Catherine de Medici of Italy toted a sampling of the green thistle with her when she crossed the Alps to marry Henry II of France that the artichoke began to gain acceptance throughout Europe.
So fond was Catherine of the vegetable, it is said she often fainted from over consumption! While most Americans hadn't even seen a fresh artichoke until the 1950s, today, four counties along the California coast are devoted to farming this edible flower. Most home cooks opt for simply steaming artichokes and dipping the tips of their tender leaves in lemony butter or mayonnaise, but the range of recipe choices is expanding, providing for a number of delightful dishes.
Its sweet, buttery, somewhat nutty flavor is a perfect accompaniment with, or appetizer before, a meal. Artichokes also have the unique characteristic of changing the chemistry of our taste buds to sweetening the flavor of accompanying foods. Select weighty artichokes that are bright green, with no sign of mottled or shriveled leaves. ARTICHOKES WITH ORANGE AIOLI
Artichokes are native to the Mediterranean and aioli (garlic mayonnaise) has been called "the butter of Provence." 4 large artichokes 1 cup mayonnaise 4 cloves garlic, minced 1/4 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon olive oil 1 tablespoon orange juice concentrate 2 teaspoons grated orange peel 8 orange segments, optional
Wash artichokes under cold running water. Cut off stems at base so artichokes will stand without tipping, and remove small bottom leaves. If desired, trim tips of leaves and slice off top inch of artichokes; discard. Stand artichokes upright in a non-aluminum steamer or deep saucepan. Steam or boil for 25 to 40 minutes or until base can be pierced easily with a fork. Turn artichokes upside down and drain. Chill. For the Aioli Sauce:
Combine mayonnaise, garlic, and salt in a food processor. With blade running, add olive oil and orange juice concentrate; blend until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use. To serve: Place aioli into four small serving bowls; sprinkle with grated orange peel. Arrange artichoke with orange segments and sauce on four plates.
Serves 4. Optional: Artichokes may be hollowed out by removing fuzzy center with a spoon. Fill center of each artichoke with sauce and sprinkle with orange peel. - From the California Artichoke Advisory Board ANCHOVY DIPPING SAUCE A twist to the usual melted butter or mayonnaise is this interesting dipping sauce. Use more or less anchovy paste to suit your taste. 1 egg yolk 1-1/2 teaspoons anchovy paste 1-1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1-1/4 cups olive oil 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar Whisk egg yolk, anchovy paste, mustard, and lemon juice together in a medium-sized glass bowl until smooth. Slowly whisk in the oil, a few drips at a time to begin, then in a thin stream. When completely emulsified, whisk in the vinegar. (You may expedite this by using a food processor or blender.) Makes about 1-1/2 cups. CRAB DIP FOR ARTICHOKES A rich and delicious combination, that makes a good party platter. 1 scallion (green onion) finely chopped 3/4 cup fresh or canned crab meat 1 cup mayonnaise 1/2 cup sour cream 1 teaspoon fresh lemon or lime juice Dash of Tabasco (optional) 1/3 cup fresh dill Salt and ground black pepper, to taste Combine all ingredients in a bowl. Mix well, and chill thoroughly before serving. Makes about 2 cups.