It has been such a long time since you and I have talked. Not that you need this explanation, but I have been very busy working six hundred million hours a week at my new independent bookstore. Why does everyone imagine that owning an independent bookstore is like having an eternal cozy Sunday afternoon when you sit quietly on the couch absorbed in a fascinating book, when actually it’s like working six hundred million hours a week trying to figure out which of the next 20,000 new titles being published are going to appeal to the increasingly embattled customer who imagines they will will have one cozy Sunday afternoon in the foreseeable future to spend on the couch absorbed in a book?
Nevertheless, there are perks. Like when a publisher who is about to publish a book called The Vegetable Butcher, by Cara Mangini, sends you a box of baby artichokes and dares you to butcher them. This is the last thing you think you have time to do, but on the other hand, being a hard-core artichoke fanatic (as documented previously in this Diary), a thing you cannot quite resist.
Here are a couple of things you probably know if you too are a hard-core artichoke fanatic:
1. Preparing a fresh steamed or boiled artichoke is no biggie. I do it probably once a week. You just slice off the top of the stem, and about an inch from its bottom, place it in a steamer over boiling water, and let it cook while you’re making the rest of whatsever for dinner. You don’t have to deal at all with scooping out chokes or acidulation (beyond squeezing a little lemon juice directly onto the surfaces you’ve just sliced). Although in restaurants I will occasionally order some fancier treatment of an artichoke, I always find myself disappointed because whatever fancy thing has been done to the vegetable inevitably buries its unique flavor and charm and becomes all about the fancy thing.
2. Bottled or canned artichokes, while often recommended in recipes, are also a profound disappointment to the hard-core artichoke fanatic. These oily, chewy chunks of artichoke-shaped rubber, are, essentially, pickles. You can’t replace the cucumbers in gazpacho, or tzatziki, or Greek salad, with pickles–even though pickles are jarred, preserved cucumbers–because it would just be: wrong.
Therefore when this box of baby artichokes arrives, along with the sorts of recipes that usually call for those small, bottled or canned artichokes that you don’t even believe count as artichokes, of course you will make time to experiment with them.
The recipe I embarked upon was for Artichoke Torta, which Mangini describes as being a dish from her Ligurian great-grandmother and one of her family’s “most prized recipes.” It requires you to do all the things that normally do intimidate me and prevent me from going beyond steaming, notably: de-choking, acidulating, and potentially burying the essential artichoke flavor.
Also, I must say, what needs to be done to these little babies does feel, weirdly, more like actual butchery than what I normally do to a full-size artichoke. In order ensure that what you put into the torta is the tender, succulent part of the artichoke, and not any of its greener, tougher casing, you need to strip off about a third of the outer leaves. This is challenging for me because the tips of these leaves are perfectly edible, and we are sacrificing their tender but quite tiny tips to the enterprise. It reminds me of the expression you hear at writers’ workshops, attributed sometimes to Faulkner, that to be a good writer you need to be willing to “murder your darlings,” i.e. those phrases, sentences, and sometimes whole sections of a piece of writing of which you are personally very fond but which don’t benefit the work as a whole.
Once I get past that, the rest of it’s a breeze. At this stage of being an artichoke, that inner choke, if it exists at all, is just a tiny bit of fuzz, easily scraped from the heart. In practically no time my little darlings are bobbing around in their big bowl of acidulated water, like rubber duckies in the tub. After some sizzling in a pan with onions, garlic, nutmeg, and some other seasonings, they go into a mixture of beaten eggs, bread crumbs, and parmesan cheese, and then into a baking dish. About 40 minutes later, this wonderfully browned thing that is a cross between a cake and an omelet comes out of the oven.
Diary, I’m sharing a picture of how glorious it looks when you slice into it, with those delicate feathering artichoke leaves lending the appearance of apple strudel. We took the photo on Mr. Darcy’s phone, and he emailed it to me under the subject line: “Artichoke Porn.”
As promised, it is a really special dish: It’s flavorful but not in a way that overwhelms those tender babies. It’s the kind of sturdy, flexible dish you can bring to parties and pot-lucks and unusual enough to impress your hosts and fellow guests.
But for me the main take-away is this: I will never have to make my peace with those jarred, pickled lumps that call themselves artichokes. If you want a tender baby to taste like a tender baby, you just need to be willing to butcher the little darling yourself.