Sunday, March 04, 2001

Artichokes a chore . . . for somebody else

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        This is not one of those columns where I go on about the glory of cooking and eating fresh food. I've written my share of those, and I do believe fresh is best - most of the time.

        Now I'm having problems understanding the benefits of plucking, peeling and trimming fresh artichokes. I grew up eating butter beans and collards, but I've learned to like the sublime earthy flavor of artichokes.

        I enjoy them tossed in pasta and baked on pizza. And when presented with a whole cooked artichoke, I will pull the leaves through my teeth to scrape off that smidgen of delicate flesh.

        But until recently, someone else was doing the plucking, peeling, trimming and cooking. I avoided preparing these big thistles until I spotted a simple recipe for an artichoke and potato casserole in Giuliano Hazan's new book, Every Night Italian (Scribner; $35).

        After following Mr. Hazan's explicit instructions, I've decided I was right all along: For the measely yield of edible plant, preparing artichokes is way too much trouble. Not only is it a time-consuming and prickly business, along the way you must rub lemon juice over cut surfaces of the green artichoke to prevent it from turning a dingy brown within seconds.

        (There is an easier method for steaming whole artichokes to be eaten, leaves and all, at the table. But it's not practical for cooked dishes like Mr. Hazan's casserole that use the heart only.)

        Cracking crabs and lobsters also requires a lot of work. But after all that prying and picking, your reward is eating succulent lobster and crab. Stab and scratch your fingers on a thorny artichoke leaf, and you only get to eat artichoke.

        I can't explain why the Italians have been eating artichokes for more than 2,000 years. Except that they're Italians. And by the way, how desperate was the first guy to dig out an artichoke heart and eat it? Weren't there nuts and berries available?

No budging

        The foodie police will probably lock me up after reading this, and Alice Waters and Julia Child may never return my calls, but on the subject of artichoke preparation, I cannot be persuaded.

        I hear amazing things about baby artichokes, those tender immature globes that will arrive later in the spring, depending on the weather on California's central coast, where most of the domestic crop grows. You can eat the entire baby artichoke, they say, kind of like a soft-shell crab. Sounds almost too good to be true.

        After preparing grown-up artichokes, I feel that I'm a better, more rounded-cook for the experience. I encourage others to try this casserole. But if you don't want to wrestle with a fresh artichoke, frozen or canned hearts will do just fine.

Preparing the heart

        These instructions for trimming an artichoke and recipe are adapted from Every Night Italian:

        1.Pull, snap back and discard leaves, leaving tender part at bottom of artichoke. Continue pulling leaves until lighter, tender part comes halfway up the leaf.

        2. Cut crosswise across the top of the remaining leaves where the tender part ends (about two-thirds down from tip of leaves). Rub cut parts with lemon.

        3. Cut off the bottom stem and trim it so that only the center core remains. Slice thinly lengthwise and drop into bowl of lemon water.

        4. Trim outside of artichoke to remove all dark green parts. Rub with lemon.

        5. Using dinner knife with rounded tip, pry the inner choke out and discard. Scrape away all the white fuzz in center.

        6. Put trimmed artichoke heart in lemon water until ready to cook.

Artichoke and Potato Casserole

        3 medium artichokes
        2 lemons
        1 1/4 pounds medium boiling potatoes, such as Yukon Gold
        2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more if needed
        Salt and black pepper, to taste
        1 teaspoon finely chopped garlic
        1 tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley
        1/2 cup freshly grated pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
        1 tablespoon plain bread crumbs

        Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Trim artichokes, following above instructions, using one of the lemons for rubbing the cut surfaces. Cut trimmed artichoke in half lengthwise and then into very thin lengthwise slices and put in a bowl with enough cold water to cover, mixed with juice of the remaining lemon.

        Peel potatoes and slice no more than -inch thick. Put slices in bowl with cold water to prevent potatoes from darkening. Lightly coat bottom of an 8-by-10-inch baking dish with a little of the olive oil and spread one-third of the potato slices over the bottom of dish. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Sprinkle a little of the garlic, parsley and grated cheese over the potatoes, then drizzle olive oil on top.

        Layer half the artichoke slices over the potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and top with a little more garlic, parsley, grated cheese and olive oil. Continue layering and seasoning the potatoes and artichokes, ending with last layer of potatoes.

        Pour about 1/3 cup water into dish, sprinkle bread crumbs over the top and cover dish with foil. Bake until vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove foil, raise oven temperature to 450 degrees, and bake until top layer becomes lightly browned, another 5 to 10 minutes. Allow dish to settle 5 minutes before serving. Makes 4 to 6 servings.


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- MARTIN: Artichokes a chore . . . for somebody else