Without a doubt, the best thing about my weekly panier (besides whiskied cherries, of course) is the challenge of cooking with new ingredients. Although this week’s bounty looks much like the last with the ever-present lettuce, more succulent cherries (which did not last long as a treat at my morning meeting with the boss today) and artichokes, the fennel presents me with a new challenge.
I am slightly ashamed to admit that I have received fennel before, but like the winding path of the black radish before it, they wasted away in a corner of my refrigerator before I had took the chance to figure out how delicious they could be. Not this time!
Rather than scour the Internets for a recipe that merely sounds good, I have put out a call on Facebook for my friends’ favorite fennel-y foods. Within an hour I had ten suggestions, each sounding more delicious than the last (keep them coming, there will be more fennel in my future). I think, for my first fennel frolic, I am going to try this, or maybe this (thanks to Lisa and Maggie, respectively). Although I remain undecided about their exact preparation, I do know that they will pair well with the seared skirt steak, roasted red potatoes tossed with chives and steamed artichokes I am planning for dinner this Saturday.
(artichokes growing in The Garden of Dreams in Kathmandu, Nepal)
Growing up in Northern California, steamed artichokes have always been a staple of my family’s kitchen. It was not until I moved to Boston that I realized that not everyone has had the simple pleasure of eating an artichoke whole, leaf by leaf. In fact, when Camille quoted me, waxing rhapsodic about the possibility of just artichokes for dinner, she received at least one comment asking how to cook them at home. So, I thought a primer was in order.
The first step is to trim and wash the artichokes. I cut the stem off as close to the base of the globe that I can, making sure that it is even, so that the artichoke can still sit up straight on a plate. I also trim the pointy ends off of the leaves (a serrated knife is best for this). Not only does this save you getting poked by the thorn-like tips, but allows better separation of the leaves for a thorough rinse before cooking.
I steam my artichokes, although I do know others who bake or boil them. I do not have a basket steamer, but placing my colander in a large stockpot and covering the whole thing with foil works just fine (even if it looks a bit ghetto). My secret for getting an evenly cooked artichoke in the minimal amount of time is to steam them upside-down. After spreading the leaves for washing, this creates ample space for the steam to permeate and cook the artichoke from the inside out. Bring the water to a rapid boil, place your artichokes in their preferred steaming vessel, cover tightly and wait. These artichokes were about the size of a baseball – maybe a bit bigger – and they took about 45 minutes of steaming.
To tell if an artichoke is done, I uncover the steamer and poke the center of the globe with a sharp knife. If the knife point slides into the heart easily (with slight to no resistance) then the artichoke is ready to be eaten. They will have browned significantly with cooking. Remove carefully from the steamer and let cool for a few minutes.
Steamed artichokes are eaten leaf-by-leaf, working inward until getting to the heart. Like lobster, they take a bit of work to get into and are an excellent vehicle for a variety of condiments. Traditionally, the leaves are dipped into melted garlic butter or mayonnaise. I have found recently that the leaves are also delicious dipped in hummus. For our girls night dinner, I tried my hand at making basil aioli, which was deemed a resounding success.
Each leaf is pulled, gently if the artichoke is cooked until tender, off of the globe, dipped in the chosen sauce and the ‘meat’ on the bottom of the leaf is scraped off with your teeth. Do not bite through the leaf. Colleen volunteered this how-to photo to ensure that all of you see exactly where to bite and scrape. Plus, it is just a great photo.
Once the leaves are mostly gone, you will come to the center of the artichoke. The leaves here are extremely tender and form a sort of pyramid with purple tips. These can be pulled off together in a large group and I usually discard them as there is very little edible meat on the bottom of each and I am often impatient to get to the heart (wow, I sound sort of vicious there).
Once removed, you will see the choke – this is the layer of fine, hair-like fibers that cover the heart. These can be easily scooped out with a spoon, or torn off with your fingers. Be sure to clean off the heart well, as these are horrible to get stuck in the back of your throat (trust me) – it is called a ‘choke’ for a reason.
The base of the artichoke is also known as the heart. This is the part of the vegetable that most people are familiar with, often found marinated with oil and spices on salads or mashed with garlic, cheese and mayonnaise for a dip. The entirety of the heart is edible and is best cut into slices, dipped lightly (or, you know, slathered) and savored, piece-by-piece until finished.
Delicious. Artichokes are an especially fun food to serve in a group, as the slow leaf-by-leaf meal provides ample opportunity to sit back and catch up. And even better when your guests bring dessert and wine (thanks to Colleen and Barbra for being such good sports).
Now you have no excuse not to enjoy the bounty of summer. Speaking of which, I’ll get back to you on that fennel…