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May 14, 2007

Arty Chokes Three for One Dollar


An old teacher of mine used to tell a joke about artichokes. The actual joke was long and drawn out, but the punchline was this:


The headline the next day was, “Arty chokes three for one dollar.”


It’s not a funny joke, but the artichoke isn’t widely known for its sense of humor.


What it is known for is powerful cussedness, an irascible unwillingness to cooperate under all but the most violent circumstances.


Much of this is to be expected, considering that it’s a cousin of the thistle, which itself has a well-deserved reputation for confrontation.


To even approach the artichoke, for use in the kitchen, requires two things – a pair of sharp scissors and a lemon wedge.


The first thing you do is trim the tops off the leaves (some prefer to simply hack the top third away with a knife and be done with it, an advisable course of action if you don’t have three hours to spend preparing dinner). Then, you rub the cuts with the lemon wedge. Some will argue that you do this to prevent discoloration, but the truth is as obvious as the nose on your face.


You do it to send this message: “I can cause you pain, or I can cause you a great deal of pain . . .  the choice is yours.” The artichoke then believes that it is largely in control of its own destiny.


Immediately, however, comes a moment of cruel glee. Crush the artichoke by putting it – leaves pointing up – in a steamer for half an hour. During that time, no one would blame you for popping in, rubbing your hands and giggling maniacally while standing beside it.


Don’t waste too much time gloating, however, for there is much left to do.


Once the artichoke is steamed, remove the outer leaves by pulling them off. Steamed thoroughly, they will come easily. Soon, there will be a small pile of them in front of you, and you will wonder what purpose their sacrifice serves.


This is your answer – a cheap appetizer. Serve them with melted butter and fresh lemon juice. Instruct those at the table to dip the leaves in the butter and scrape them with their teeth. It is a medium for the delivery of melted butter, but invariably some of the vegetable goodness of the artichoke will follow.


Pull off the leaves until you reach some that are white with purple tops. This is a sign that you’ve nearly reached the inner sanctum of the artichoke – that you are nearly to its heart.


Once you have gotten through these softer, thinner, less pointy leaves, there is a layer of fuzz. This is called the choke, perhaps because if you tried to eat this fuzz, you would invariably inhale some of the light fibers into your lungs. Remove the fibers, either by scraping a spoon across the hairs, or with your fingers.


What remains is the artichoke’s heart, which most of us recognize as the most edible part. Congratulations, six days and 17 hours of work has just paid off with a handsome reward.


You might, here, ask yourself, “What the heck do I do with this?”


The artichoke originally hails from Italy, so the natural answer is that you turn it into a pasta dish, and that your sauce would include other natives of the Mediterranean Basin. For this, we get our good friend, the pitted Kalamata olive and also some capers. We also get some tomatoes, which relocated to the Mediterranean after being discovered in North America by European explorers, but which collectively find the Italian climate agreeable.


Chop up the artichoke heart and cook it for a few moments in olive oil and garlic, and then add your olives and tomatoes and also some fresh rosemary, thyme and oregano.


The saucing process rarely gets enough mention. The tomatoes you add will first release their juices, your sauce will be thin and watery. As it warms, however, water will begin to rise from it in the form of steam. It is reminiscent of water rising from a pond in the middle of the summer. The water leaves, and everything mixed previously in the water remains behind. In a pond, that means algae, duckweed, fish. Here, that means tomato-y flavor, olive-y goodness, artichoke chunks. One, you study under a microscope; the other you eat with pasta that meshes well with hunk-filled sauce.


Here, penne stands on the sidelines screaming, “Put me in, coach!”


© 2007 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


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