Last Saturday, the day before Easter, I was singing the blues. By that day, the Bay Area had endured far more than 40 days and 40 nights of rainfall (which might help to explain my extended break from blogging). I had started scouring the web to learn more about the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder, convinced I must be suffering from it. After I grew bored with medical sites, I surfed over to ones picturing vacation rentals in Barcelona, hoping that Travel Porn would lift me out of my funk. No luck. Nothing could cheer me up, not even dunking chocolate covered Digestive biscuits into a cup of Earl Grey.
Then I made my weekly trip to the local farmers market and spied these.
Just knowing that something so gorgeous could spring up out of our sodden local landscape cleared away my gloominess in a flash, like the elusive burst of sunshine that I and everyone around me so desperately craved.
Feeling like a child who had just found a stash of brightly colored plastic eggs filled with chocolates, I picked 6 purple-tinged lovelies out of a basket of the Sicilian Violetto artichokes at Mariquita Farm's market stand. I was amused that about a third of the artichokes in the basket perfectly mirrored my previous foul mood: dark violet in color, they bore vicious long spikes as sharp as a wolf's fangs or claws. I was happy to leave those -and my blues - behind. I'd dealt with cases of those bastards a decade ago as an intern at Chez Panisse, daily returning home with a new collection of bandages. I figured this time around that I deserved to pluck the tamest looking chokes in the basket.
I am a sucker for sexy produce. Some might say to an unhealthy degree. Once, a few summers back, I was so absorbed by a display of ripe, juicy heirloom tomatoes in a rainbow of colors that I completely missed that a beautiful Hollywood celebrity was standing right next to me. I'm not making this up. She apparently even bumped into me and excused herself and I didn't even look up. In fact, I recall being rather annoyed. I only learned of it when, after she had left, the salesperson and my wife both exclaimed their excitement at the brush with celebrity. I was oblivious and thought they were making it up. Sadly, they were not. And N will never let me forget it. Yes, I have a problem.
Where was I? Ripe, juicy, sexy... oh, yes, artichokes! I have yet to find a way to prepare these prickly flower buds that I don't like. See Mark Bittman's article in yesterday's Dining section of the New York Times (on line free for a week) for how to stuff, pan fry, and shave artichokes raw into a salad. But stay here if you want to learn one of my favorite ways to tame this thistle, a method that draws out the vegetable's innate sweetness better than any other. For lack of a better term, I'll call it oven-braising.
You can use any size artichoke for this method, but try to use the smallest you can find. Regardless of the size, the challenge with these curmudgeons of the vegetable kingdom is always the same: getting down below the layers of armor and thorns to expose its tender "heart." Of course, as a loyal reader of this blog, you already know how to do that from my recipe for vegetable paella.
So, on to the recipe!
Sexy Oven-Braised Artichokes
2 large, 4 medium or 6-8 small artichokes
lemon or a small bunch of parsley
extra virgin olive oil
half an onion, thinly sliced
2 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
2-4 T white wine or fino sherry
2-4 T chicken or vegetable stock
few sprigs thyme
Preheat oven to 350˚F/180˚C. Pare your artichokes and cut them as in the first step in my recipe for vegetable paella. Plunk them into a bowl filled with water and place a small bunch of parsley on top (or alternately squeeze the juice of a lemon in the water - both help to prevent the artichokes from oxidizing and discoloring).
In a pan over medium-low heat, pour in a few tablespoons olive oil, add the onions and "sweat" for 10-15 minutes until translucent. Then add the garlic and cook 5 more minutes.
Pull the artichokes out of the bowl and place them cut side down (if applicable, depending on size) in a shallow baking dish just large enough to hold them in a single layer. Cover with onion mixture. Pour over enough wine or sherry and stock and a few more glugs of olive oil, enough so that the artichokes are sitting in a shallow ¼-inch deep pool of liquid. Add the thyme and season generously with salt (artichokes can take a lot of salt). Cover dish tightly with lid or aluminum foil and bake in oven for about 30-45 minutes or until tender, but not falling apart, turning the artichokes over after about 25-30 minutes. Once the chokes are tender, uncover and cook for 10 more minutes, until liquid reduces to a few spoonfuls and artichokes start to shrivel and brown a bit. Allow to cool in any remaining juices and serve them with or without the onions and garlic. Taste and season with salt if necessary.
One warning. Oven-braised artichokes end up slightly gnarled and a little disheveled, kind of like how we all look just emerging from a jacuzzi or a sauna. But, like us, they are incomparably sweet and tender afterwards.
One way I served these recently (pictured above) was at room temperature with a few slices of jamón serrano and sections of grapefruit, with a splash of the braising juices and good olive oil. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami all huddled together on a plate. Yum!