Artichokes are another of those foods I prefer having all the work done before they hit the table. I've never quite gotten the charm of being presented a whole steamed artichoke and some dipping sauce, possibly melted butter or Hollandaise, and left to my own devices to pluck off the leaves and scrape off the little bit of good stuff at the base of the fibrous outer leaves. The proportion of the edible to leaf just isn't worth the trouble.
So I recently devised this treatment for baby artichokes that deliver the best of all worlds. First, weighing them down in a cast iron grill pan (mine's a Mario Batali number with grill ridges and a really heavy lid) gives the outer leaves a nice papery, crackly texture. Following that, a braise in wine, chicken stock and fresh rosemary infuses the artichokes with flavor and renders them buttery soft. To finish, a dab of mayonnaise and a sprinkling of Parmesan with a quick turn in a hot oven makes a luxurious bubbling topping. Every bit fork-tender, not a morsel to waste.
The "Gaetana" is a tribute to the matriarch of St. Louis's Kemoll's restaurant (source of my mozzarella en carroza recipe). A favorite dish on the menu was Halibut Gaetana: a thick cut of fish coated with a generous layer of mayonnaise mixed with finely chopped onion. Baked until the top was brown and bubbly, indescribably delicious, the fish virtually indistinguishable from the sauce, all snowy white tastiness. The kill-joy calorie police have probably sent Halibut Gaetana into exile by now, but in this treatment for artichokes the mayonnaise is applied with restraint so I think you'll be able to enjoy them without having someone alert the authorities.
Baking mayonnaise transforms it from its familiar spreadable state into a thicker, more substantial mass. The cheese adds a welcome bit of chewiness.
One thing to remember — the artichokes oxidize much more quickly that you might remember, so do have some lemon juice on hand to rub them once you've trimmed them.
Carcioffi Gaetana (Gratin of Baby Artichokes) is a much method as recipe. Here's how I did it:
9 baby artichokes
1 large sprig fresh rosemary, needles stripped from the stem
1/2 c. chicken stock
1/2 c. white wine
3 T. mayonnaise
1/4 c. Parmesan
Trim the artichokes: break off and discard all the dark, tough outer leaves until you have a tulip-shaped bulb of yellowy-green leaves. Cut off the tips of these remaining leaves to get rid of any lingering sharp points. Use a peeler so smooth out the sides where you broke off the leaves and to take off the fibrous outer skin of the stalks. Rub each one as you go so they don't darken. Slice each in half and scoop out the tiny thistly chokes.
Heat a couple of tablespoons of oil in a heavy cast iron pan until very hot. Place the artichokes halves face down in the pan, and weigh down so they're pressed into the bottom of the pan and the leaves splay out. I'm lucky to have a heavy grill pan that leaves nice marks and has its own heavy lid that fits snuggly into the pan. Weighing them down is key, so you could use a smaller cast iron pan within a larger one, or maybe a brick covered with foil. I have confidence you'll be able to figure something out.
Cook the artichokes in the hot pan for five minutes — take a peek, the bottoms should be browned and the edges of the leaves crisped. Lower the heat to medium, add the wine, stock and rosemary, weigh down again, and cook for 15 minutes more. At this point most of the liquid will have cooked down and the artichokes will be tender throughout.
Lay them in a shallow gratin dish, cut sides up. Place a little spot of mayonnaise in the center of each, the little spot where you scraped out the choke. Pour the remaining pan juices over everything, and evenly sprinkle the cheese. Bake in a hot oven (400°) for 10 minutes.
And there you have it!