May 14, 2007
Arty Chokes Three for
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.
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
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
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