Baby artichokes love, love, love to be braised. It gives them the opportunity to develop multiple levels of flavor: the browned flavors from an initial sear, the mellow sweetness of the tender artichoke heart, and slow infusion with aromatics.
Artichokes are mostly associated with Mediterranean flavors, and I didn't see any reason to swim against that tide here. Fennel, cherry tomatoes, rosemary, garlic, lemon and white wine all fit right into that profile. You could happily add black or green olives or lemon zest or Parmigiano-Reggiano (if it doesn't need to be vegan). Peas or fresh fava beans could replace or augment the fennel. The tomatoes break down just a little bit to help flavor the sauce.
I happened to have beautiful baby fennel, so I simply quartered the heads lengthwise. If yours is all grown up, cut it into batons about 2" long and 1/3" square.
We ate this as a course all by itself. Ok, we ate it on the couch at 11 PM, because neither of us had a normal dinner that day. You could serve it as a side dish, or even better as the condiment for pasta, polenta, or risotto. (Which goes back to what I was saying about vegetarian meal planning.)
Most of the work for this dish is in preparing the baby artichokes. It isn't hard but it does take a little practice and time. Saveur has a good photo essay for the first few steps.
Here is how I do it: fill a bowl with water and the juice of 1 lemon. Trim off the upper 1/2 of each artichoke. Break off the tough outer leaves and use a paring knife to remove their base. Trim the end of the stem and peel the stem. Cut into quarters lengthwise and use the paring knife to cut out the hairy "choke". Immediately toss the completed quarter into the acidulated water.
I think the hardest part is just to accept that you are going to be throwing a lot of the artichoke away. But be a little ruthless and you'll be rewarded with a tender, delicious heart, stem and a few leaves. The first chef I ever worked for told me I was being "too nice to the vegetables" – it wasn't that she didn't hold them in the highest regard, but she taught me that the best way to honor them was to trim away the less edible parts so that what I served shined.
Braised Baby Artichokes with Fennel and Cherry Tomatoes
Serves 2 as a hearty side dish or pasta condiment
Vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free
- 2 lemons (divided)
- 8 baby artichokes, trimmed and quartered (as described above)
- 2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup fennel batons (reserve some of the greens, minced, for garnish)
- 1/2 cup cherry tomatoes
- 1 sprig rosemary
- 1/2 cup white wine or vermouth
- fresh ground black pepper
- minced parsley
- Fill a bowl with cold water. Squeeze one of the lemons into it and throw in the lemon halves. Prepare the artichokes quarters, throwing each one into the acidulated water right away to prevent browning.
- Heat a medium-sized skillet over a medium-high flame. Add the olive oil, and a few seconds later, the garlic. Add the artichokes in a single layer and a big pinch of salt. Cook for about 5 minutes, turning once or twice to develop some browning on as many surfaces of the artichokes as possible.
- Reduce heat the heat to medium low. Add the fennel, cherry tomatoes, rosemary, white wine, juice from the second lemon, and another pinch of salt. Cover.
- When the artichokes are fully tender, probably about 15 minutes, remove the lid and raise the heat to cook off any excess water. Remove the rosemary sprig. Transfer to serving bowls and drizzle on the little bit of sauce remaining in the skillet. Garnish with black pepper, parsley, and the fennel greens.