March 18, 2012

Blog the Ninth: Artichokes ‘n Potatoes

Stuffed with Love or Braised with Ease:  You Choose.

Today I will present you with dueling recipes, as in that cookbook that Jacques Pepin and Julia Child did together with contrasting recipes on facing pages of the book, except that it will be me facing off with my mother.  Let me concede from the start that her artichokes are more delicious than mine.  So what’s the contest?  Well, hers require the indefatigable patience of maternal self-oblation, while mine are easy enough for you to do even on a worknight.  If you’re not a self-oblating Italian mother, gourmet mania might perhaps substitute for maternal kenosis to carry you through my mother’s recipe, but I doubt it (however tendentiously).

My mother lovingly stuffs each leaf of each artichoke, one by one, with a delicious little breading, so that each time you pull off one of the leaves of your artichoke and scrape it with your front teeth, you get a little savory breading together with your little bit of artichoke flesh—yes, every single leaf.  These stuffed artichokes are such a favorite in my family, especially with kids, that it is beyond numbering how many my mother has made over the years.  She’ll complacently make as many as a dozen at a time, so they’ll be extra for the kids to take home.  (This amazes me in a woman who tells me that stripping broccoli di rape stalks one by one is playing house!)  In any case, I personally don’t know of any modern kids deserving of such a labor of love, and I maintain that it rises to the level of the spiritual virtue of charity if done for unworthy ones, so this can count for your Lenten mitvah of the day.

Once the artichokes are stuffed, they’re put in a pot together with potatoes and steamed with plain water, which would make them vegan fare, if not for the grated cheese in the breading.  My recipe, in contrast, pairs artichoke hearts with potatoes and braises them in water and chicken broth, but water alone works at least as well, so my recipe gains vegan points.  My mother’s stuffed artichokes are classic meatless Friday fare.  We typically eat them on their own as a first dish, before fish or eggplant alla parmigiana, for example, although sometimes someone will save theirs until after the main dish, but they’re too elaborate to eat as a side-dish.  They’re also messy to eat.  When I once made them for a formal dinner party, I felt obliged to provide my guests with wet hand towels afterward, that they not make a mess of their cloth napkins. 

Besides potatoes, both our recipes make use of a great deal of garlic.  The abundant garlic makes all the difference (and olive oil—but do I really need to tell you that at this point?).  When Gentiles serve me steamed artichokes, I don’t even recognize them.  They look like artichokes, but they don’t taste like much of anything, unless there was lemon in the steaming water, in which case they taste like lemon; or unless you dip them in butter, in which case they taste like butter; or in a mayonnaise, in which case they taste greasy gross—to me, at any rate.  So vastly different is the delicious taste of my people’s artichokes, I could almost fear that we have unawares fallen prey to Frankish artifices of concocting and imposing illusory flavors.  But I feel sure this cannot be.  No, rather, Nature has buried some of her finest flavors deep within for us to labor with her to bring forth from her with all the greater satisfaction for the privilege of the midwifery.

An artichoke doesn’t look all that edible, let alone delicious.  Moreover, if you pull it apart, you find that camouflaging the little tender butt of a heart is a fuzzy choke, named the “choke” because you’re liable to choke on it if you eat it.  This is no friendly vegetable.  It’s work to cook and work to eat.  But there’s pleasure in the effort.  I once took pains to learn the gourmet way of trimming artichokes down to their edible core, which is a royal pain in the neck; and then I stuffed them the way my mother usually does, which is an even royaler pain in the neck; and when I presented them at table, my parents winced at them with undisguised aversion, and said, “What did you do to the artichokes?”  With stalwart cheerfulness I explained, "I trimmed them the way the Romans do, so that you can eat the whole thing."  They each took one, skeptically poked at it a bit with their fork, then cut it up and swallowed it down in a couple of bites.  My father then said, “They’re better the way your mother makes them.  Don’t do this anymore.”  My mother looked at me compassionately, but with assent.  Do you see, Gentle Reader, that I could not entertain gourmet pretensions even if I wanted to?  My parents won’t permit it.  But, since even as great a saint as Paul was sent an angel of Satan to beat him so as to keep him from pride, a  fortiori

I grant that, being predatory, much of the pleasure of eating a whole artichoke is tactile:  the relentless plucking of exposed petals round and round from the outside in, scraping each leaf clean of its clinging flesh before casting it off, licking fingers along the way for stray bits of flesh, circling slowly but surely in on the prize heart at the bottom of it all, at last devoured in a well earned mouthful.

These are the pleasures, at any rate, of eating the medium sized artichokes that my mother stuffs with breading.  The large mammola artichokes that the Romans famously steam upside down with garlic and herbs are best pared down to their edible cores, since they are large enough to offer satisfaction while the pared away parts being tough and bland do not, even after a garlic and oil treatment.  At the opposite extreme are the little artichokes, which in Rome in are so young and tender in early spring that they can be eaten whole and raw, tiny chokes and all; but when not to be found as young and fresh as that, they are good roasted, with garlic and oil, as ever.

My recipe is for braising artichoke hearts with potatoes.  It is adapted from Marcella Hazan’s, who teaches you how to pare medium artichokes down to wholly edible artichoke hearts.  I’m not going to teach you this because I think it not worthwhile.  It’s quite laborious, and having done it, I saw no appreciable advantage in the final dish over the frozen artichoke hearts I get from Bird’s Eye (Trader Joe’s sells them by the bag as well).  Once the artichoke hearts are braised with the potatoes, they almost fall apart and mix in with the potatoes, copulating flavors, and the pleasure is quite different from that of eating a whole artichoke on its own.  The prepared frozen hearts are what make my recipe so easy, so they get me my handicap points over my mother’s recipe. If I had you pare down the artichokes, the contest would be lost before it got stared.

Stuffed with Love

My mother’s recipe is for stuffing medium-sized artichokes with breading.  You first have to trim the artichokes.  I fill a bowl with water salty as the sea and squirt lots of lemon juice in it, to provide a salt-bath both to cleanse the artichokes and keep them from discoloring once trimmed (my mother thinks this is spurious, but I got the idea from her one remaining sister in Sacco, so I insist that the usage is ancient, not gourmet).  Begin by snapping off the outermost leaves at the base, going round and round, until you get to leaves that seem clean and tender.  Then cut away the stem (but save it), high enough up to leave a flat butt the artichoke can sit upright upon.  Now cut off about an inch from the top of the artichoke, so that most of the tips of the leave are cut away, and you’re left with a flat top.  Dip the artichoke in the lemon water, against discoloration. 

Now the next step is my own, and not my mother’s.  I remove the core leaves tenting the artichoke choke by using my thumbs to massage open the whole artichoke until I’ve exposed the pyramidal core of purple tipped leaves, and then I reach in and pinch the whole of it firmly with thumb ‘n pointer, wrenching it back and forth to loosen it from the heart and pluck it out whole.  Usually I don’t quite manage to pluck it out whole, so I follow up with a melon-scooper or spoon to scrap the heart clean of any clinging choke fuzz.  I do this both because it seems gracious to spare the eater the trouble of removing and discarding this tent en route to the heart, but also because it makes stuffing the artichoke easier.  However, I bet you my mother would object.  I bet you she’d think it too much undermines the frame of the choke, leaving it too vulnerable to the steaming.  I’ve never mentioned to her that I do so, my innovation no doubt being subject to the aspersion of “playing house.”  Be that as it may, that’s what I do, and then I plop the artichoke into the lemon bath, itself subject to the same aspersion. 

Now back to the stem. You want the core of the stem for use in the breading, so cut off the tough ends to expose the white core, and peel away all the fibrous green stem around this white core.  Then plop it into the lemon-bath as well.  And so on, for each artichoke.  At the end, before you start to stuff the artichokes, you'll want to drain them and rinse them with fresh water, to get rid of the lemon taste, if you wish.

First, you need to prepare the stuffing.  The stuffing consists of enhanced 4C Seasoned Bread Crumbs.  For each choke, I use 3 tablespoons of 4C and not more than 1 tablespoon of grated Pecorino Romano (grated into curly strings with my handy OXO rotary grater, as it right and just).   Were I using plain bread crumbs, I’d do 2:1 crumbs to cheese, and maybe throw in dried herbs and salt.   You could omit the grated cheese altogether for purer artichoke taste (if less kid-friendly); my mother says no way, but I did once by accident, and rather liked the purer taste.

Chop your artichoke stem-cores finely and add them to the breadcrumbs.  For each choke, add a small clove of garlic chopped very finely.  Add lots of chopped fresh parsley together with grindings of black pepper.  Then drizzle some extra virgin olive oil over all and mix it all together well.  If the crumbs don’t start to cluster a bit, mix in more oil until they do.   You want a moist, light, mealy sort of mixture you can take up with a fork.

Now’s time for the loving.   You stuff the leaves with the breading one by one, from the outside in.  I grab a small dessert-fork with my right hand and take up some breading with it.  I deposit a little breading  onto the heart in the center I’ve exposed, in lieu of the removed choke (nice little surprise for the eater later, no?).  To start on the leaves.  I grab the choke with my left hand, and with my left thumb pull all the inner leaves inward, simultaneously using the fork to pry open and press down into the leaf to be stuffed some breading at its base.  Then I rotate the artichoke to do the next outer leave, and again use my left thumb to pull back the inner leaves while using the fork to pry open and stuff the outer leaf.  I thus systematically work my way in inward rotation toward the center.  I usually tire after the second one, and start musing on whether my guests are really worth this tedium.  My mother just loves these recipes where you tenderly assemble portions one by one.  In this, I am not my mother’s son.  My heart lacks that tender spot.

As you stuff each choke, stand it up in the pot along the sides.  You want a pot of such size that the chokes will all fit in snugly together in the end.  You also add big potato wedges in between the chokes.  During the steaming, they are permeated with distilled artichoke essence and emerge from the experience quintessentially delicious.  Russets are always good to use, but waxy thin-skinned boiling potatoes are good here too.  Peel the potatoes and cut them into big fat steak-fry wedges and wedge them in between the artichokes (alternatively, I sometimes lay them on the bottom of the pot as a bed, and seat the artichokes upon them.) 

Once all the stuffed artichokes are tucked in together with the potatoes, you want to prepare olive oil to pour over them.  But first put some water to boil for use later.  Then pour out into a small pot or pan enough regular olive oil to later cover the bottom of your steaming pot with a pool of it (perhaps a tablespoon or so for each artichoke?)  Then lightly crack several big fat cloves of garlic with your knife handle to loosen the skins; cut off a bit from each end and pull away the loosened skin; cut the cloves in half.  Add them to the cold oil and turn the heat on the medium.  When you hear sizzling begin, tip the pot or pan to create a pond of oil for the cloves to float and sizzle in, until they become golden to behold and sweet to smell, with hints at the edge of gilding. 

Pour this aromatized oil evenly over all the artichokes in the pot.  Turn the heat up to medium-high under the pot, shower the artichokes with salt, and cover the pot to sweat the artichokes.  When the pot has worked itself up into a lively and steamy sizzle, add in the boiling water to come only half way up the artichokes.  Turn the heat down to achieve a gentle simmer, and cover the pot (perhaps slightly ajar, if you believe that covering green vegetables produces a bitter flavor, which I don’t; or if it does, it doesn’t bother me).  In any case, the artichokes will take as long as 40 minutes or so to cook through.  When they’re ready, a fork will go easy through their hearts, but the only sure way to know is to pluck off an outer leaf and scrape away with your teeth to see if its flesh is tender. Be careful, because it will be very hot.  In fact, after the artichokes are cooked through, you need to let them cool down from hot to warm, since they are to be eaten by hand, and taste more flavorful tepid anyway.

There is in the end some enticing broth at the bottom of the pot.  The eating of the artichokes by hand is already a messy enough business without doing it in a pool of liquid.  For similar reasons, we usually serve the potatoes on the side in a bowl, since they’re not conveniently eaten simultaneously with the artichoke.  Why not pour the broth over the potatoes?

Artichokes Braised with Potatoes

What if you don’t have the time, patience, or tender-heartedness to stuff artichoke leaves one by one?  I’ll tell you what to do.  Buy yourself some frozen artichoke hearts and dump them into a bowl of water.  Peel and cut up some potatoes into chunks maybe twice the size of the hearts.  This recipe can feature either the potatoes or the artichoke hearts:  you can make it be potatoes flavored with artichoke hearts, or artichoke hearts filled out with potatoes, depending on the proportion that suits you, your provisions, or your company.  Either way, dump your potatoes into your bowl of water with your hearts.

Put some water to the boil.  Meanwhile, chop a goodly amount of garlic, several cloves surely, by halving each clove symmetrically, then laying the halves flat side down on the board, slicing them lengthwise into a few times, and then finely crosswise.  Pour out a pool of extra virgin olive oil to cover your braising pan and scrape all your chopped garlic into the cold oil.  Turn on the heat to medium, and let the garlic come to sizzle, flipping it often to saute it evenly and keep it from browning on one side.  When the garlic is golden, gilded, and sweet to smell, drain the artichokes and potatoes and dump them into the pot.  Toss everything together, shower it with salt, cover the pot, and let it come to a steamy sizzle, flipping now and again.  When the artichokes and potatoes are nicely glazed with oil, mix in well a goodly amount of chopped parsley and lots of grindings of black pepper.  Then add boiling water, to not quite cover the artichokes and potatoes  You could instead opt to add half boiling water and half chicken broth, or all broth.  For the artichoke enthusiast, water is the way to go, for purity of flavor; if you doubt your company, chicken broth can put a friendly face forward for the fearful. 

Lower the heat to achieve a lively simmer, cover the pan (perhaps ajar), and cook until the potatoes are fork-tender, often under 30 minutes.  At the end, they should still be very moist, unlike most of my people’s garlicky dishes.  That’s why I call it a braise, rather than a saute.  When we saute, we want the vegetable to dry out and sizzle until glistening and rosy, for a fried effect.   Here I don’t want that; I want it still sitting in a bit of its own juice, which I’d sooner liken to a gravy than a sauce, since it is educed from the food, not imposed on it.  I borrow the word braise from the method of cooking cartilaginous cuts of meat by first browning them in fat, then adding liquid, and then cooking them slow and long until the meat is tender and its juices reduce with the liquid into a gravy.  In this dish, the artichokes give the artichoke 'gravy' its flavor, and the potatoes its substance.  This braise is delicious next to a roasted meat, which you could be grilling once you get the braising pan going.  In well under an hour, you will have some delicious dinner—and a right proper dinner, if you toss some red food onto the plate, and finish with salad, fruit and coffee.  Or, you could lovingly stuff whole artichokes, one by one, tenderly, for your undeserving kids.  You choose.


Artichokes Stuffed with Love

* This recipe is for medium-sized oblong artichokes, not big green globes.
* Trim each artichoke thus: pull away outer leaves toughened by age or misfortune; slice off (but save) its stem, to give it a flat bottom to sit upright upon; slice off its pointy head, to remove the prickly points of its leaves, leaving it with a flat top. Put the trimmed chokes in a bath of lemon water.
* Prepare the stuffing thus: for each artichoke, measure out 3 tablespoons of seasoned bread crumbs, 1 mounded tablespoon of freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese, and a clove of garlic chopped fine. To this mound of seasoned breadcrumbs, add much freshly chopped parsley and many fresh grindings of black pepper. Then cut out the white core of each artichoke stem, chop it finely, and add it to the breading. Wth a fork mix in just enough extra virgin olive oil to the breading to make it mealy but still fluffy.
* Now stuff each artichoke thus: spiraling from outer leaves to inner, grab the artichoke with your left hand and use your left thumb to pull inner leaves inward and out of the way, while with your right hand you use a fork to pick up some breading and wedge it into the base of the leaf being stuffed. Continue stuffing spirally, leaf by leaf, to the center. When you tire, remember that you're being loving.
* As you go, arrange the stuffed artichokes snugly in a pot. Wedge bit wedges of peeled potatoes in between the artichokes.
* Now put a pot of water to boil, and a pan of light olive oil to heat (perhaps a tablespoon of oil per artichoke). Add several whole garlic cloves, lightly crushed or scored, to the heating oil. When the cloves sizzle, tip the pan to float them in the oil. As soon as they color and sweeten, pour out the pan of garlicky oil evenly all over the artichokes in the pot. Sprinkle the artichokes evenly all over with salt and fresh grindings of black pepper.
* Put the pot of artichokes over medium heat, covered, to heat up, and sweat, and sizzle. When they smell good and look pretty, pour boiling water into the pot to come barely half way up the stuffed artichokes. Easy does it -- you don't want to wash your stuffing out of your artichokes! Perhaps add a bay leaf, if per chance you have one.
* Leaving the cover barely ajar, cook the artichokes until the hearts yield tenderly to a probing fork, perhaps 30, perhaps 40, even 50 minutes. Turn off the heat, and let them cool down to warm, so that that they can be eaten by hand.
* Eat thus: from the outside in, spirally, pull off each leaf and with your top teeth scrape off its clinging artichoke flesh together with its lovingly stuffed breading. I recommend you pile up your scraped leaves neatly on the side of your plate. When you get to the heart at the bottom of things, scrape away all its hairy choke with a knife or fork, and then engulf the heart of the thing, albeit lovingly.
* Eat the potatoes whenever and however you please.


Artichoke Hearts 
Braised with Potatoes

* Put a package of frozen artichoke hearts to soak in a bowl of water, together with potato wedges nearly twice the size of the hearts. The ratio of hearts to wedges could be equal or unequal, depending on need or preference.
* Add an abundant allowance of chopped garlic to an expansive pool of olive oil. Turn up the heat to medium, and sauté just until the garlic blushes golden.
* Off heat, add the drained hearts and potatoes, with a generous sprinkling of salt. Cover the pan , return to the heat, and sweat the hearts and potatoes, with a flip or two in between, until they glisten with the oil.
* Sprinkle the hearts and potatoes with a generous pile of freshly chopped Italian parsley and grindings all over of black pepper. Flip and fold to mix.
* Now add either boiling water, chicken broth, or both (I like half 'n half), to half way up the hearts and potatoes. Bring the liquids to a lively simmer before flipping the hearts and potatoes in them.
* Bring the pan down to a gentle but still steady simmer, put the cover on ajar, and cook until the potatoes are soft. Correct for salt and pepper, needless to say.