Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Tackling the artichoke
With leaves like Cruella's spiky fingernails and a spirit just as malicious, this is not a vegetable to be taken lightly. The spiky Italian artichoke seems hell-bent on causing injury - but oh, what a reward once you conquer it.
When my wine merchant saw the vicious thorns poking out of my basket this morning, his eyes lit up. "Ce sont les meilleurs," he exclaimed. "Comme du beurre." They even got the attention of the normally reserved Jouni, who became positively enthused at the sight of my acquisition.
Spiky or not, the artichoke is not as scary a vegetable as it looks. A member of the thistle family, this flower bud varies in color from pale green-gray to deep purple and can be bigger than a grapefruit or as small as a lime. As the name suggests, it contains a hairy "choke" (known as the foin in French) that can be removed before or after cooking to reveal its well-concealed heart: the real prize for all that effort.
Big globe artichokes from Brittany are the best for steaming or boiling whole and eating leaf by leaf with vinaigrette or mayonnaise. But a more familiar sight in the south of France is the small violet-tinged artichoke known as the artichaut violet or poivrade. With barely developed chokes, these can be eaten raw, stewed with white wine, onion and carrot in a barigoule or poached just until tender in water, the juice of a lemon and a tablespoon of olive oil before being added to salads or pasta sauces.
We often cook artichauts à la barigoule in my classes as a way of introducing people to the small violet artichoke. Preparing them gets easier - and definitely faster - with practice, but requires no special skill other than a bit of patience.
Today I decided to try a recipe that I had been eyeing for a long time in Elizabeth David's French Provincial Cooking. She described it as a primitive barigoule, involving only a startling amount of olive oil, water and artichokes. The water-and-oil emulsion spits and sputters as the water evaporates leaving only oil, but it's all part of the fun (as is cleaning up afterwards).
The result reminded me of the Jewish fried artichokes I had eaten in Rome, complete with crisp outer leaves, making this recipe well worth the mess. In hindsight, I could have discarded fewer leaves than usual for this recipe as the crunchy fried leaves - like little artichoke chips - were probably the best part.
Before you start, prepare a bowl of water with the juice of a lemon. Add each trimmed artichoke to this water as quickly as possible to stop it from oxidizing (which turns it from a lovely pale yellow-green to gray).
Cut off the long stems, leaving about 5 cm (2 inches) of stem attached to the artichoke. The remaining stem can be peeled, cut into 1-inch pieces and cooked asparagus-style or made into soup.
Now cut about 3 cm (1 1/2 inches) off the top of the artichoke and discard the trimmings. You might like to keep a half-lemon nearby to rub the cut top of the artichoke before you continue.
Remove the hard outer leaves, starting at the stem and working your way up. Normally I discard at least three layers, until the leaves are pale yellow-green tinged with pink, but in this recipe you really only need to discard about two layers.
Now trim the stem using a small knife or vegetable peeler. The artichokes are ready to go into the lemon water.
When you've finished trimming all the artichokes, place them (without the lemon water) in a frying pan or saucepan that will hold them in one layer. Pour in olive oil to about halfway up the artichokes, then add water just to cover them.
Bring the water and oil to a boil over high heat. They should bubble vigorously and emulsify, creating a creamy liquid. Lower the heat only enough to minimize the spitting, but since the aim is to let all the water evaporate it has to boil hard.
When the water has evaporated and only oil is left, the spitting will calm and the oil will continue to bubble. Now keep a close eye on the artichokes. You might need to move them around a little, and I placed them stem side up towards the end to brown the leaves. It took longer than the recipe predicted, about 35-40 minutes rather than 15-20. This could be because I used a saucepan rather than a sauté pan.
Once the artichokes are golden, remove them with a slotted spoon, drain them on a paper towel and serve hot, sprinkled with fleur de sel.