Amuse Bouche: Weekly Musings on Food & Life

12Mar09

2008-19-02_artichokes

Putting the Art in Artichoke

by Suzanne Lenzer

Few vegetables hint at spring as intensely as artichokes. Yes, asparagus is up there, and of course the first ramps do their part, but these tightly clenched buds are the ones that declare it in a commanding sort of way. To me these thistles are the ones that sit there proudly in their baskets or crates and assert that it’s time for winter to move on.

I realize that in California artichokes are easier to come by all year round than out here in New York (almost 100% of the artichokes grown in the States come from California), but even so, as more of us are trying to eat with the seasons, now is the time to really embrace this well-armored vegetable. I know it’s intimidating–all those dense petals with daggers on the tips protecting the internal choke. And that coarse foreboding hair-like substance that hides the delicate heart. It does seem like a lot of work when you really just want something to eat.

But if, like me, you don’t just like artichokes but covet them, you know a little bit of work is worth the effort. Artichokes braised in white wine with a bit of pancetta. Artichokes blanched and sautéed in olive oil and topped with preserved lemons. And what’s lovelier that a thinly shaved raw artichoke salad, tossed with curls of fresh Parmesan cheese and generously drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice? All of these are enough to make me long for March.

It’s worth noting however, that you don’t have to actually do a lot to enjoy artichokes in the simplest form. Growing up all my Mom did with artichokes was trim the stem and steam them for about forty-five minutes. Then she’d melt some salty butter and set a small bowl of it between two of us to share. We’d pluck the petals from the wobbling bulbs, dip them in the butter, and clench the leaves between and teeth, pulling to liberate the fleshy bit at the end. Then, when we’d reached the tough center, my Dad would remove the fuzzy top of the heart and slice up the meaty center for us to share (two artichokes for four was the rule). This was always the treat worth waiting for (which is why today, I insist on one artichoke per person)

So this weekend, when you’re thinking about dinner, don’t ignore the noble artichoke because it’s got a defensive exterior. Treat them like you would a lobster (also a rather intimidating yet edible delicacy) and stick them in pot with some water until the leaves are just tender enough to pull away and melt some butter for dipping. Or get a bit fancier and try this simple braise. Either way, I bet you’ll feel like spring is on its way with that first bite.

Simply Braised Artichokes

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

2 globe artichokes, trimmed and halved lengthwise

1 to 1 1/2 cups chicken broth

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Freshly grated Parmesan, optional

1. Trim the bottom of the artichokes and about ¼-inch off the top. If you like you can also use kitchen shears to trim the tops of the external leaves, but this isn’t necessary. Slice the artichokes in half lengthwise and using a paring knife or sturdy teaspoon, scoop out the coarse fibers and sharp yellow petals just above the heart. (At this point if you’re going to let the artichokes sit for any length of time, put them in a bowl of water with lemon juice to avoid discoloring.)

2. Put the olive oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about two minutes.

3. Add the artichokes and toss until they’re coated with oil. Continue cooking the artichokes, cut side down, until they just begin to turn golden, about five minutes.

4. Add a cup of the chicken broth, salt, and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low, and simmer for about 30 to 40 minutes, or until the exposed heart is easily pierced with a knife. Check the artichokes every fifteen minutes or so to make sure the liquid hasn’t boiled off, if it does, add more broth.

7. Transfer the artichokes to a plate, turn up the heat, and reduce the remaining liquid until desired thickness. Drizzle the artichokes with the pan juices and serve topped with freshly grated Parmesan.

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