Monday, April 18, 2016

How to Prepare and Cook an Artichoke

Apparently it's artichoke season. Also, since we're lucky enough to live in the Monterey Bay area -- one of the primary artichoke-growing areas in the entire United States -- we get the privilege of seeing artichokes appear in our CSA boxes. (I'm still learning the specifics of what grows in my area seasonally, obviously.) That happened for the first time with the most recent box we received.

Seth had never eaten an actual intact artichoke before in his life. I've eaten them maybe once or twice as a child, but never actually prepared them all by myself, so this was kind of a first for both of us. I'm still kind of in shock as to how much I liked these. I probably shouldn't be though, as I tend to enjoy "interactive" foods like these -- foods that need to be disassembled a bit by using your hands before they can be eaten. And holy shit, were they ever delicious. 

Obviously, I wanted our introductory experience to artichoke eating to be as positive as possible, so I really did my homework beforehand to make absolutely sure I didn't fuck them up during the cooking process. I also researched the proper way to eat these things so that neither of us would be confused. Like I said, my most recent experience with these things was way back there in childhood at some point, so I didn't totally remember. (I found this video on how not to eat an artichoke wrong to be extremely helpful, just FYI. Seriously, watch it.)

As for cooking, I had my choices between baking, steaming, and boiling. I dislike boiling vegetables with a passion, since you're boiling away a lot of the flavor and nutrition in the process. Steaming sounded fine for these, but I really liked the idea of baking them much better, despite the fact that almost every resource I read recommended one of the other methods over that one. The main reason seemed to be that people have trouble with the 'chokes drying out during the baking process. Now... you know being able to cook stuff in the oven in such a way that it never gets dry is a point of pride for me, so I took that as a challenge to be accepted and conquered. 

And I'm glad I did, because I don't know how these could have come out any more perfect. They were tender, flavorful, and perfectly cooked. Not even a hint of dryness. Would eat again! In fact, I'm really hoping that when we get our box this week that there are more chokes in it, because yum.

  • Preheat your oven to 425 degrees so it's nice and hot by the time you finish the rest of your prep work.
  • Trim all the little pokey petal tips off of your artichokes. Most resources I looked at listed this step as optional, but I would do it. If you don't, you're going to stab yourself a bunch of times while you're trying to wash and season these things. 
  • Use a serrated knife to cut away the top 3/4 inch or so of the top of the artichoke. Also, give the stem a minor trim -- just a 1/2 inch or so. It doesn't seem like it, but the stem is actually part of the artichoke heart and that's the best part of a 'choke, trust me.
  • Wash your 'chokes really well under cold water. Separate the petals a bit with your fingers to make sure you get all the yucky dirt and sand out of there. No one likes sandy-ass veggies.
  • Season your artichokes by drizzling a little olive oil over them so it goes down into the petals. Then sprinkle a little kosher salt and fresh ground pepper down there as well. 
  • Now wrap these things in tin foil. Wrap them really, really super well, because that's the key to not having them dry out the way people worry they will. I used a double layer myself and there was zero leakage. Arrange your foil-wrapped artichokes in some kind of baking dish just in case though.
  • Bake the artichokes for an hour. Unwrap with care, because they're hot. Enjoy according to the instructions in that video I linked to above, because really... a visual of what to do and what not to do will be a million times more helpful than any directions I could possibly write for you.
Apparently you can stuff artichokes with just about anything you want as well. I hear bread crumbs and garlic make a great combination. I'd personally like to try making a sausage and bread crumb stuffing now that I've had these and know exactly what type of flavor and texture I'm working with, but there's lots of room to experiment. 

As for serving suggestions, I think I'm a fan of stuffing and/or seasoning your artichokes really well and enjoying them as a tasty side dish, as opposed to dipping the leaves in mayo like a lot of people seem to do. We ate ours along with some vegetarian chicken stir fry wraps and cheesy whole grain rice medley, but I can picture these going excellently with any sort of red meat in particular -- like a really nice steak or a burger. Pasta marinara, pizza, or any sort of Italian food would also be a really good choice, I'd imagine, as these have a real "special occasion" feel. Don't forget the red wine!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Veggie Tales: On Shelling Peas for the First Time

When I signed us up for the CSA boxes we've been enjoying so much, a lot of it was about convenience. It was an easy, affordable way to get more fresh produce into our diets without someone having to lug it home on foot. I also really liked the idea of learning to eat in season and having my money go to support a local farm right here in my community.

Last but certainly not least, I've been really interested in developing an appreciation for foods and ingredients I've never much liked -- particularly the fruits and vegetables that have been on my shit list for years. Neither Seth nor I have cared much for peas in particular, but we were both kind of excited to give them a second chance when they began showing up in our produce boxes.

The peas came in the shells, so I got to have the experience of shelling them by hand -- a completely new experience for me. We never ate fresh English peas that came in their shells when I was growing up (at least not that I remember), so I had no idea how to even go about it. Nothing a quick Google search couldn't fix though.

Honestly though, I have to say I really kind of enjoyed the experience, but then I've always enjoyed using my hands to work with and prepare food. I had saved our first batch of fresh peas to have with our Easter lamb, so I just sat with Seth and prepared them while we watched that wonderful New Yorker series on a quiet holiday afternoon. The pods filled the room with this wonderful green, springy smell. Plus, the act of splitting the pods, using my fingers to free the peas, and listening to the sound they made as they fell into the container I was using was satisfying on a really interesting level. I felt like I was doing something really simple, and healthy, and normal -- three concepts I wouldn't usually apply to my life. On the rare occasion I can, I notice it.

As I mentioned, I don't have the fond, idyllic childhood memories some people apparently have of sitting with a mother or grandmother and shelling peas together for a family dinner. My mother never actually liked to cook, so it's hard for me to even picture her willingly putting that kind of effort into preparing a vegetable when she could buy it in a can or in the frozen food aisle instead. I enjoy having that sort of connection to my food though, so I found it relaxing -- getting something delicious, and springy, and fresh ready for a special holiday dinner while I sat and talked with someone I love and care about. I remember thinking that that must be what "family" feels like.

And the peas were delicious. I mixed them with some baby carrots from the same produce box and they went perfectly with the lamb, gravy, and couscous I made for dinner. When we got peas in last week's box as well, I was really excited to shell them and serve them again, this time with one of Seth's amazing medium rare brisket burgers and a stuffed baked potato. Now I see why that meat, potato, and peas combination is considered such an American classic. It's because it really is delicious and comforting, just right for a time of year when it's no longer cold, but it isn't quite warm yet either.