Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Thursday, May 21, 2009

All About Artichokes

I love artichokes, I think I could live on them if they were in season year round. They're super yummy and really rather easy to handle, and given that they can be served hot or cold, it's great to make extra artichokes at dinnertime so you can enjoy some for lunch the next day too.

All you need for fabulous artichokes are fresh artichokes, a lemon or two, sharp kitchen scissors, a large serrated knife, a small paring knife, salt, and a large stock pot.

Choosing Fresh Artichokes

First, you want to pick the freshest artichokes you can find. When an artichoke is fresh, it squeaks when you squeeze it with both hands, and it feels heavy for its size. If you squeeze an artichoke and don't hear squeaking, move on to the next one.

Prepping Artichokes

I prep my artichokes before they're cleaned because prepping can leave bits trapped in between the leaves that you don't want trapped in between your teeth.

Start by cutting your lemon(s) in half, saving one half for use on the cleaned artichokes while using the other half for the unclean artichokes in preparation.

Pick up the artichoke and remove the very small leaves at the bottom, by hand, simply by pulling them backwards until they snap off. If they don't just snap off because they're too rubbery, then you didn't pick a very fresh artichoke.

Next, grab your scissors and start cutting off the top 1/3 of each leaf, starting above the ones you just pulled off. Normally, artichoke leaves have a bit of a split in the top of them, cut the leaf so that this split is removed. Do this for all but the very top leaves of the artichokes.

Using your serrated knife (known also as a bread knife), turn the artichoke on its side and saw off the top leaves you haven't yet cut.

At this point, generously rub lemon on the leaves and top of the artichoke, as you go... don't wait and do them all at the end, by then the first artichoke will have already gone brown. Lemon is for flavor, but at this point it's used to avoid discoloration.

Now you should be able to see the light yellow and purple leaves at the very center of your artichoke, called the choke or heart. You can remove the choke or you can leave it. Artichokes cook more quickly if you remove the choke, but the choke is removed more easily when cooked. A great trick for removing the choke of an uncooked artichoke is to use a spoon that got caught in the garbage disposal and now has jagged edges. It's the upside to accidentally "ruining" a spoon.

The last step before cleaning is to cut away the outside of the stem. The center of the stem is full of the yummy artichoke bottom, so I don't discard it. Even if I want to serve the artichokes without their stems (they sit up nicely that way), I just cut them off after cooking and eat the center myself. To trim down the stem, first cut off the dry bottom, then turn the artichoke upside-down and, starting from the bottom of the stem with a paring knife, cut down until you reach the bottom of the artichoke, then snap if off backwards like you did with the first small leaves. Then slather the lemon all over the stem.

Cleaning Artichokes

To clean an artichoke, start by rinsing it under cold running water, pulling it apart slightly to get the water down between the leaves. Then fill a large bowl with water and, with the artichoke upside-down, plunge it into the water repeatedly, spinning the artichoke as it hits the water. Finish by rinsing again under cold running water.

After washing each artichoke, generously rub and squeeze the unused lemon half all over it before cleaning the next one. If you removed the choke, make sure to get lemon juice in the middle and around the inner leaves. Place the artichokes in waiting in a bowl to collect the lemon juice.

Cooking Artichokes

I boil my artichokes, it's quicker than steaming. The trick with boiling is to get them to stay submerged in the water, artichokes are notoriously buoyant. If you have a large pot with a short steaming insert, fill the pot with enough water such that the steam insert will force the artichokes to stay under water. If you don't have this type of pot, then just get creative. In the photo I demonstrate this creativity, instead of using my All-Clad with the inserts, I used a smaller Calfalon and just floated a sieve on top of the water to keep the artichokes submerged.

Add the artichokes and their lemon juice to well-salted boiling water. If your lemons are organic and you washed them, you can boil the lemons with the artichokes for added flavor (just don't use the half you smeared on the unclean artichokes).

A medium artichoke will take about 20 minutes in boiling water. To test for doneness, try pulling out a leaf (using tongs so you don't burn your fingers). If the leaf comes out easily and the meat at the bottom of the leaf is tender enough to scrape off with your teeth, then the artichoke is done. Drain them upside-down so you don't accidentally burn yourself with trapped hot water when eating them.

Serve artichokes with melted butter when warm, and a vinaigrette or home-made mayonnaise when cold. And in case you care, artichokes have zero fat and are a great source of potassium and fiber. But I eat them just because they're delicious!

Artichoke on Foodista

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