20 January, 2009
what I didn't know about artichokes
Have you ever eaten an artichoke? You get one point if you have eaten an artichoke in what I may call "dip-form." I can account for a fair number of you on that score because some of us lucky souls have been the recipient of my brother in law Joel's incomparable artichoke dip involving copious amounts of mayonnaise and pecorino cheese, never to be underestimated. The two-point answer is if you have actually bought and eaten a jar of prepared artichoke hearts, lovely in a salad or on a slice of toasted baguette with some goats cheese.
The three-point answer, the one that comes with the fluffy toy, is if you have bought a raw artichoke and somehow dealt with it as an ingredient. And in the last few days of intensive polling, I have encountered a surprising number of very foodie people who have if not an aversion, a suspicion bordering on prejudice against the humble choke. Why?
I think it is one of those foods, like the coconut or the crab, that must have taken a VERY, VERY hungry person to discover it was edible. Honestly, the thing is covered with lethally pointy leaves that have left tiny pinpricks on my fingers ever time I prepare one. Only one tiny portion of each leaf, should you survive cutting off the tips, is edible, and to eat it at ALL you have to steam the hell out of it. Then the alleged best part, the heart, is at the very bottom, and filled with the horrid choke that's like a cross between dental floss and milkweed.
Well, if you're like me, you are stubbornly attracted to this bizarre vegetable. I get cravings, and drag the things home, saw off their tops, cut the leaf tips with scissors, peel the leaves from the stem, and then steam them. And WITHOUT FAIL, I boil the saucepan dry and only notice this when an acrid black smoke has filled the kitchen and ventured out into whatever room I'm in at the time. Whatever substance emanates from the artichokes into the cooking water turns absolutely adhesive when it boils dry, I can tell you.
Yet I persist. I take the half-cooked artichokes out of the dry pan and transfer them to another pan, and then doggedly watch it until it boils, determined not to make the same mistake twice. While it's cooking, I make a drop-dead vinaigrette, although I know lots of people like to dip their chokes in melted butter, and others still more greedily in mayonnaise. No, my vinaigrette wins hands down: three parts olive oil to one part balsamic, the juice of a lemon, some mustard, fresh thyme, salt and pepper, a little pesto if I have any.
And here's the silliest part: I don't even LIKE the heart. The Holy Grail of the artichoke world, the heart holds no charms for me, Don Quixote-like as I am. So John gets the heart. I stick with the leaves.
Well, this week I decided that the roasted artichoke dip made by my beloved local deli-eatery, Brooks on the Green, could surely be made by little old me, and I looked up a recipe for roasting artichokes. The recipe I found involved all the steps I described above, which is plenty of work already, THEN you slice the artichokes in half lengthwise, remove that horrid choke, watch as the cut surfaces instantly turn a very unappealing moldy-looking grey, no matter how fast you rub it with lemon juice.
Once you've done all this, you rub the artichoke halves all over with a mixture of fresh thyme, olive oil, salt and pepper, then lay them cut side down in a foil-lined dish, with a garlic clove and a lemon slice underneath each one. Then you cover the whole dish with more foil and roast it in the oven at 425 for 40 minutes.
Then what? The recipe didn't say. So I served them, bless my ignorant little heart, to us for dinner, with a sharp knife and hope in my heart. Roasted artichokes! Finally. And I saved one to use in the dip I was so sure would be within my grasp to replicate.
Well, let me be the first to tell you, there are no circumstances on this earth under which the leaves of an artichoke are edible. They are tough. They are sharp. It was like eating garlic-flavored magazine covers. Or drivers licenses. I simply could not understand it. I had followed the recipe precisely and the recipe had many happy, contented comments following it. What on earth had I done wrong?
I slept on my failure, dreaming that I was being chased by artichokes, thrown to the ground and all my blood drained by being scraped with their nasty little leaf tops. When I awoke, I went straight to the computer and guess what I found? Would you believe there are videos on YouTube teaching people to roast artichokes? This is a very strange world. So I duly watched it. And I discovered the dirty little secret. You eat a roasted artichoke in precisely the same way you eat a steamed one: you pull the leaves out one by one and scrape the base along your teeth. That's STILL the only part of the leaf you can eat. After going to all that trouble!
I slunk into the deli yesterday under the weight of my disaster. "Oh, we get the artichokes in ready-roasted. And we use only the heart. The leaves aren't worth anything." NOW they tell me.
I felt so dumb. Imagine being middle-aged and a not-inexperienced cook, and still thinking you can eat the leaves of an artichoke, even with a STEAK knife. It can't be done.
I felt so exhausted by the whole endeavor that it will be awhile before I buy another artichoke. Although it's not the poor thing's fault I was so ignorant. But for the foreseeable future, my table will be graced with some nice, harmless, innocent and most important, SELF-EXPLANATORY... broccoli.