Oh, Baby! Artichokes

September 16, 2011

You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all, just as an intelligence without the possibility of expression is not really an intelligence. Our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing.

~Luis Buñuel

While memory is often altered to suit self and others (as if life then stands explained), we carry our youth through life. Our early impressions doggedly remain, however spun later to placate others. Sometimes correcting unjust misperceptions or often simply revising the past to fit the present. Thankfully, food has stasis and lacks this kind of delusion. Food adorns a plate honestly without demand or compromise, and sometimes even dominates conversation, imagination. I have been smitten by these green thistles since childhood…at first infatuation, then a torrid tryst and finally an abiding love that has perservered. And at least with artichokes you can rinse and carve away the bitterness.

Despite the misnomer, luscious baby artichokes are not infants. Rather, they are fully mature perennials that grow closer to the ground than their rotund partners, sheltered by fronds overhead which effectively stunts their growth. Artichokes are meticulously planted and harvested by hand. At full blossom, the plants spread to some 6 feet in diameter and reach a height of 3-4 feet. The fields are maintained in perennial culture for some 5-10 years with each cropping cycle launched by cutting back the tops several inches below the soil to stimulate development of new shoots. Sometimes called “stumping,” this is timed to initiate a new harvest.

These tender baby morsels are coveted by chefs thanks to their ease of prep and plating beauty, whether sautéed, roasted, braised, grilled, steamed, or fried. Unlike with larger globes, the inner fuzzy choke does not develop making the plant almost fully edible.

Usually available throughout the year they have a peak spring season, and then a smaller crop is reaped in autumn. Select small, tightly closed, firm, heavy, evenly green artichokes. Avoid dry looking thistles that are browning or too open or gaping.

SAUTEED BABY ARTICHOKES WITH HERBS

Juice of 1 lemon
Cold water
12 baby artichokes

1/4 C extra virgin olive oil
4 plump, fresh garlic cloves, peeled and thinly sliced
4 fresh sage leaves
1/4 C fresh tarragon leaves, loosely packed
1/2 C fresh basil leaves, loosely packed
Small pinch of red pepper flakes
Freshly ground black pepper

Sea salt
Parmigiano-reggiano, grated
1 T capers (optional)

Rinse the artichokes under cold water. This will remove the natural thin film that can give the choke a bitter taste. Then, snap off the outer layer of leaves until you reach the pale, yellow-green layer of petals—sort of half-green at the top and half-yellow at the bottom. Trim off the stem and pare all remaining dark green areas from bases as they can prove bitter. Cut about 1/2″ off the tops of the artichokes and then cut them in half lengthwise.

To prevent browning, soak the trimmed artichokes in cold water acidulated with lemon or vinegar. This also loosens dirt that may have settled between the leaves. Drain the artichokes well and press between kitchen or paper towels to remove most of the water.

Place a heavy, large sauté pan over medium high heat, then add the olive oil and heat until shimmering. (Please be aware that the water residue will cause spatter when the artichokes are added to the hot oil.)

Add the artichokes in batches to the heated olive oil and toss quickly to sear. Add the garlic, herbs, red pepper flakes, black pepper and cook, stirring frequently, until the artichokes are tender, caramelized and slightly crisp at the edges, about 8-10 minutes. Do not burn the garlic—it should be light golden. Season with salt, very lightly sprinkle with grated parmigiano-reggiano, and strew with a few capers.

Art + Chemistry = Cheese

April 30, 2011

Age is something that doesn’t matter, unless you are a cheese.
~Luis Buñuel

Combine milk, bacteria, rennet, mold…and you have one seductive and addictive vice.

So simple, yet almost magical and surely sublime is this holy craft of transubstantiating milk into cheese. Even though the fond remains fairly steady, cheeses can range from rustic to elegant in character with noses, palates, textures, hues, masses and shapes across the board. It is about art and chemistry.

There is no fixed date, but cheese is rumored to have originated when goats were first domesticated in the fertile crescent region of the ancient Middle East around 8,000 BCE, give or take a millenium or two. Perhaps some imaginative soul noticed that neglected (1) milk turned acidic and curdled into a thick yogurt which could then be readily separated into solid curd and liquid whey. While the whey provided a refreshing drink, the fresh curd could be salted to produce a crude cheese. Others have suggested that the process was accidentally discovered by nomads who stored milk in skins made from animals’ stomachs naturally lined with rennet, separating the milk into curd and whey.

A primer may be in order. The cheese artisan first acidifies milk to turn the liquid into a solid by use of a (2) bacteria. There are several hundred thousand strains of starter bacteria which devour sugars, converting lactose into a lactic acid. This creates a viscous yogurt-like mass.

Next, the syrupy mass is coagulated by adding rennet to the mix. Rennet comes from the stomach linings of young ruminants. The active enzyme in (3) rennet acts on casein proteins which occur in milk as clumps known as micelles, held together by a calcium “glue.” When the rennet is added, a web is formed which traps water and fat, further thickening the gel.

The curd is (4) heated in a giant cauldron and salt is often added not only for taste but also to inhibit the growth of spoilage microbes and draw out yet more water. The cheese is then (5) molded which proves critical. The shape of the mold, the application of pressure and the proportion of whey removed all affect the texture of the final product.

Finally, the cheeses are (6) aged/ripened, a stage where they are left to rest under controlled conditions and often in special venues, e.g., the caves of Roquefort sur Soulzon. This aging period lasts from a few days to several years. The casein proteins and milkfat are broken down and morph into a complex mix of amino acids, amines, and fatty acids. As a cheese ages, microbes and enzymes transform textures and intensify flavors.

Some cheeses even have additional bacteria or molds introduced before or during the aging process. Think brie, camembert, roquefort, stilton.

Other seemingly minor variations can have a dramatic effect on the finished cheese: animal species, breed and diet, terroir, amount and type of bacterial culture and molds, ripening time, aging locale, rennet volume, curd size, heating rate for milk, length of time stirred, how the whey is removed, and so on.

While cheeses are liberally used while cooking here, there is nothing more mold-ambrosial than an array of artisanal cheeses—from mild to wild—gracing the table with a choice wine and a baguette, ciabatta or other artisanal siren. Staff of life stuff. Khayyám’s standby “a loaf of bread, a flask of wine and thou” seems so often apt (loosely translated). A winsome foursome that brings cheeses on board is even better.

BREAD PUDDING WITH CHEESES & ASPARAGUS

1+ lb baguette loaf, cut or roughly torn into 1″ pieces

3/4 lb asparagus, trimmed and sliced into 1″ pieces

6 large, fresh eggs
1 C whole milk
1 C heavy whipping cream
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 1/2 C gruyère or comté cheese, grated
1 C emmental cheese, grated
1/2 C parmigiano reggiano cheese, grated
1/4 C fresh rosemary, minced
1/4 C fresh thyme leaves, minced

Preheat oven to 375 F

Butter a 13″ x 9″ glass baking dish

Heat a large saucepan with cold water over high, and when boiling, add salt. Cook asparagus until al dente tender, about 3 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold running water, and plunge in an ice bath to cease cooking. Drain well and dry, or the asparagus will become soggy.

Whisk eggs, milk, cream, salt, and pepper in large bowl. Mix cheeses and herbs in medium bowl.

Place half of bread in baking dish. Sprinkle with half of asparagus, cheese mixture and egg mixture. Repeat with remaining bread, asparagus, cheese and egg mixture. Let stand 30 minutes, pressing down to submerge bread pieces.

Bake until nicely browned, about 45 minutes. Remove and allow to cool 15 minutes or so.