We both love artichokes, but for quite a long time we were intimidated by the prospect of actually cooking them. When I was a kid, my parents used to steam large artichokes that we would eat by plucking off each leaf, dipping it in lemon butter, and scraping off the good parts with our teeth, and discarding the rest. The best part was getting to the heart, where once you scraped of the choke you could just bite into artichoke deliciousness.
While I always enjoyed those artichokes, Michael and I haven't felt that making them would be worth the effort for something that was just an appetizer. We wanted to eat a lot of artichoke, all together. Once we got baby artichokes, thinking that they would be easier to deal with, but they really weren't, and came out tasting quite bitter. Then we discovered this lasagne recipe from Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. Marcella explains quite clearly how to break down large artichokes to prep to steam them so that you get a good volume of usable artichoke. Then she has you mix the artichokes with béchamel and layer them with sheets of fresh pasta and parmesan. The resulting dish is an absolutely perfect vehicle for the artichokes. So simple - like a haiku. In fact, it has inspired me to write some artichoke haiku.
Béchamel and fresh pasta
Make spring perfection.
I'm not afraid of your thorns.
I will eat you up.
Marcella tends to be fairly prescriptive about her Italian dishes, as we've mentioned before, but we've found that it's best to listen to your Italian grandmother. She suggests that you could use dried lasagna noodles, but that it wouldn't really do justice to the dish. She also says that you should use no fewer than 6 layers of noodles. The first time we made it with dried pasta, the second with fresh; the first time we did 5 layers of noodles, and the second time we did 6. We won't be quite as adamant as Marcella - it is delicious with dried noodles and we won't judge you if you use them. But, if you have the time and patience to make fresh noodles, it is worth it, and you'll really taste the difference. As to layers, we didn't notice any difference between 5 and 6.
Lasagne with Artichokes (serves 4)
From Marcella Hazan's Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
- 4 medium or large artichokes
- 1 lemon
- 4 tbsp butter, plus more for buttering the pan
- 2.5 tbsp flour
- 1.5 cups milk
- Fresh or dried lasagna noodles
- 1/2 cup finely grated parmesan cheese
Fill a medium sized bowl with cold water and the juice of half a lemon, and set it aside. To prep the artichokes, first begin bending and snapping off the outermost leaves close to the base, leaving the paler green bottom. Try to pull downward when taking off the leaves so as to just peel off the inedible outer layer, while leaving as much of the edible flesh underneath as possible (see first picture below). They should break pretty easily at the right point. Keep doing this, working around the artichoke (the tender part will start to be higher up as you get into the artichoke), until you reach a cone of leaves that are only dark green at the tip. Slice about 2 inches off the top of that central cone, removing all the dark green part.
Rub the artichoke with the half lemon to keep it from turning brown. Then, take care of the stem. The stem has a white colored central core that is edible and delicious - if you look at the base of the artichoke you should see it very clearly. Trim off any tough end, and then use a knife to pare away the tough outer green part from the stem. Rub this with lemon, too.
Now, slice the artichoke in half and use a small spoon to scrape out all the fuzzy choke from each side. Finally, slice each half thinly, and put the slices into the prepped bowl of lemony water (again, this will keep them from browning).
Once you've finished trimming all of the artichokes, melt a tablespoon of butter in a wide saucepan. Drain the artichokes, rinse them, and add them to the pan with the butter and a bit of salt. Toss the artichokes in the butter and salt, then pour in water to just cover the artichokes (they will float a little bit so some will not be entirely submerged; that's okay). Bring the water to a gentle simmer and cook until the artichokes are tender, stirring occasionally (about 30 minutes). The water should cook away and let the artichokes brown a little bit in the pan. You can add more water if it's gone and the artichokes are not yet tender.
When the artichokes are nearly done, turn the oven on to 400 degrees, move the rack to the highest position, and butter a 7 by 11 inch baking dish. Then you can start preparing your pasta and your béchamel.
Prepare the pasta according to the box or recipe that you like (we went all out for this and made fresh pasta). For the béchamel, melt the remaining 3 tbsp of butter in a medium pan. Add the flour and let it bubble together for 2-3 minutes, then whisk in the milk. Continue whisking until the sauce has thickened to the consistency of thick cream. Season with salt and pepper.
Reserve about 2/3 cup of the béchamel for the top of the lasagne, and put a little bit more in the bottom of the baking dish. Mix the rest with the cooked artichokes, then begin layering: noodles, then artichoke mixture, cheese, and more noodles, until you run out. You should have about 5 or 6 layers of pasta, and 4 or 5 layers of filling. Bake for 15 - 20 minutes on the top rack of the oven, until it's bubbling and starting to brown. Let it sit for about 5 minutes before serving. Go write haikus about artichokes.