Artichokes and lemons go together, and I am lucky to live in Northern California where both are common. Backyard Meyer lemon trees are everywhere, and artichokes are found in the ornamental garden as well as the vegetable garden. They are tough plants, survivors, members of the thistle family. I once came upon a large stand of them in a long abandoned garden, unwatered and uncared for, but thriving.
In my garden, artichokes will re-seed themselves if I leave the flowers to mature (the bees love them and they make striking cut flowers). I once watched a native bumblebee rolling in sheer bliss over and over in the purple florets; covering itself in pollen. I know how it felt, the flowers are gorgeous; you might want to brush them the same way you did a boyfriend’s new “flat top” hair cut (I date myself here).
The part we eat is the immature flower bud, sometimes called a head. Although we refer to peeling off the “leaves” of the artichoke to prepare it, they aren’t really the leaves of the plant itself but the bracts that protect the flower.
For years I ate artichokes boiled, the leaves dipped in melted butter or mayonnaise. They are good that way. Then, I discovered the pleasure of grilling and serving them with a mayonnaise “spiked” with preserved lemon. Grilling adds a lovely smokey dimension. As I said, lemons and artichokes go together.
To make the dipping sauce combine ½ cup of good quality mayonnaise, the chopped peel of one preserved lemon, 1 teaspoon of Dijon mustard, and 1 tablespoon of soy sauce. Chill until ready to use, this can be made ahead and keeps for a couple of days in the fridge.
Note: It is easy to make preserved lemons yourself and a lot cheaper than buying them at the store. They keep for long time and once you have a jar in the fridge you will find lots of uses. Preserved lemons add an intense lemon flavor (without the sour tartness) and a lovely citrus perfume to anything they are added to. I use just the peel. To prepare them soak the whole lemon for an hour in cool water (change the water once or twice), then rinse and cut into quarters. You can easily separate the peel from the flesh so you are left with strips of peel. Use as directed in your recipe, gently scraping the clear pith from the peel with a small paring knife first.
When choosing an artichoke at the store pick the ones that seem heavy and firm with tightly closed petals, and a healthy green color. Since artichokes oxidize and turn brown when cut, have a couple of lemons close by. Squeeze one into a bowl of cool water; you’ll drop the artichokes in the water after trimming. Cut the other lemon in half and rub it on any cut surfaces.
Pull off any damaged outer leaves and trim the stem. The stem is edible so, unless it is tough, leave some on the choke. The tips of the artichoke petals will soften when it is cooked, it’s up to you if you trim the spiky tops. I usually snip them off but it’s not necessary.
I find grilling the artichokes brings out their natural sweetness. You will need to precook by steaming over boiling water. Put them stem side up in your steamer basket. They will take 30-40 minutes, depending on the size. You should be able to easily pull off a leaf. Test a couple before removing them from the steamer.
Once cooked, drain and let them cool. Then cut them in half and remove the choke in the middle. A grapefruit spoon or small paring knife works well. Brush them with olive oil, now they are ready for the BBQ, stovetop grill, or frying pan. Grill them cut side down until slightly charred on the edges, sprinkle with flaked sea salt and the juice of a lemon. Serve them warm or at room temperature.
Laying out a large platter of room temperature artichokes with lemon makes me feel like I am in sunny Italy.