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When the Artichokes Spoke

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I listened.

The first time I tasted artichoke, I was already in college. As far as I know it was not an item they stocked at Pat’s Food Center in Freeland, the one-stoplight farm town where I grew up.  If I had seen one at all, it was probably the likeness of an artichoke on someone’s apron.

The summer of 1974, a year of travel for me. Jeff Schillings and I were hitchhiking from San Francisco to Monterey. We got picked up by a guy driving a pickup truck. For a long stretch of road, hunched on the bed in the back, we passed field after field of artichokes. Jeff pointed them out.  He had eaten them. He was new to the west coast, but was already becoming worldly. For me the word conjured up a vague image. Something you ate, I knew only that.

Later that fall, back at school, I had my first encounter. A classmate boiled a pot full of artichokes, giant specimens the size of softballs, tough as hand grenades. 

“Do this,” she said, peeling off a thorny leaf, dunking it melted butter. She closed her mouth over it and dragged the leaf across her bite, scudding the  greenish pulp into a small mound on her tongue. She swallowed and smiled.  “Good,” she said. I tried one. The taste was appealing, but it was a lot of work for that little pile of pulp.

Then came baby artichokes.  

After Tizi and i got married, the first Christmas dinner at her parents’ house I saw them: tender, dark, garlicky green artichokes the size of eggs, each enclosed by a few layers of tough leaves, but otherwise, all edible. 

“Pepper,” her dad said. That’s what made them good. I would soon learn that to him, everything needed pepper.  He had little use for the large artichokes you commonly found in the grocery stores, except for the fact that they held more pepper. 

In those holiday dinners it soon became apparent that at the end of the meal, there would be 5-10 artichokes left over on the serving dish. I made it my practice to eat them with one last glass of red wine.  The wine’s tannins shook hands with those of the artichokes.  I had never tasted anything like it, or anything that good.

These are braised artichokes.  There’s some prep time, and it’s a long cook. In the end, well worth effort and time.

You need to wash and trim these guys

Lots of salt and pepper.

Saute a lot of garlic in olive oil.  Then lay the artichokes face down in the pan. Their hearts facing up.  Give them another generous dusting of salt and pepper.  Cook on low heat, adding water or broth to keep them wet.  A little white wine, too, if that’s your thing.

After 45 minutes or so, rotate them so they are heart down.  Continue cooking.  Keep them wet.  Low heat.  You can see how these, shown below, have browned slightly on the heart side.  We’re at two hours cooking time here.  I see done-ness.

This batch cooked 2-3 hours.  On a baby artichoke that is well trimmed and braised for a long time, the whole thing, or almost, is edible. The stems and hearts are the thing. Loaded with flavor.  Good hot, good cold.  Good today, good tomorrow.

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