Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Ingredient + Heat = Grilled Artichokes

Fig.1. Big and small artichokes. An artichoke is a flower bud yet to blossom. The purple part you see is the actual flower, which, if left to grow would blossom. If the hairy "choke" part bothers you, just scoop it out with a small spoon. The smaller variety don't have the hairy chokes. Also, to test an artichoke's freshness, bend a leaf, if it snaps it's fresh, if it bends over, it's past its prime.

I was at the market the other day evaluating some artichokes when a woman tells me, “I would love to make artichokes but I don’t know what to do with them.” To which I simply replied, “You cook them.” Now before you assume that I was being a smart-ass let me just say that while I might have been stating the obvious it is sometimes the very obvious that eludes us.
Cooking shows and recipe books often complicate food preparation, forgetting the most basic of cooking principles: Ingredient + Heat = Food. And with this formula in mind I told the inquisitive lady to forget about removing the stems, outside leaves, and tops of the artichokes, forget about soaking them in water, and forget about rubbing them with lemon juice; cut them in half, grill them, and when they’re done, drizzle them with vinaigrette.
The lady looked at me as though I didn’t know what the hell I was talking about but I insisted that she give it a try. She told me that she never heard of grilled artichokes before and that I must be thinking of asparagus. I proceeded to tell her that I was quite aware of the difference between asparagus and artichokes and that I recently returned from a trip to Italy where grilling artichokes is very common, hoping this would reassure her, but I still sensed some apprehension on her part, so, I was forced to give her a Hungry Italian business card while I continued to rant about the needless butchering most celebrity cooks inflict on the helpless artichoke. She put some artichokes in a bag, and like a hiker who inadvertently walks upon a sleeping bear, she slowly took some steps toward the cash register, facing me all the while. If you're reading this, lady, let me know how your artichokes turned out.

Fig.2. Believe me when I tell you nothing on earth smells as good as grilled artichokes. It takes a little practice and technique (a lot of it depends on your barbecue) but the reward is in the smell and taste.

Set your grill to medium high and preheat for 10 minutes. Cut your artichokes in half just before you grill them (otherwise they will begin to turn brown.) Oil your barbecue grates and place the artichokes cut side down. Close the lid and grill for about ten minutes. Turn the artichokes and brush the cut side with olive oil, cook, uncut side down, for about thirty minutes. Lower the heat to medium low—the leafy side of the artichoke should blacken. The outside pedals themselves are inedible so it’s alright if they burn slightly, they also shield the artichoke hearts from the flames allowing the interior of the vegetable to cook. If they are getting too black simply cook the artichokes over indirect heat. The artichokes do require about 40 to 45 minutes of cooking time, less for the smaller variety. To check for doneness, pierce artichoke heart with a knife, if it slides in easily, they're ready.

These are best eaten with you hands, starting from the blackened, outside pedals, pull the pedals one at a time and suck on them. Repeat until you reach the heart.

Fig.3. Salt the artichokes and drizzle liberally with a vinaigrette. The vinaigrette used here consists of lots of olive oil, crushed garlic, lemon juice, and a variety of fresh herbs.

Artichokes-The Italian Way
Here are some pictures of artichokes cooking in a bed of smoldering vine branches. A foodie friend from Rome made these on my last trip to Italy. The artichokes are hollowed out and stuffed with garlic leaves, marjoram and a whole lot of olive oil. They are then placed directly into the hot wood and left for about one hour. The outside leaves burn but the inside, with flavours of smoke, oil, garlic, and flowers, is nothing short of sublime. I was told that only vine branches can be used because of their ability to smolder slowly. In wine regions, vine branches are plentiful in the Spring, when vineyards are pruned. I'm going to try it one day soon with lump, hardwood charcoal, I'll keep you posted.

Monday, May 3, 2010

This Little Piggy Went to The Market

{Read my new article in The Warehouse Magazine}

Fig.1. Mr Birri places my lettuce and rosemary in a box. If you're planting a garden (and you should) this is the man to see.

I think it’s safe to assume that winter is behind us. For me, warm weather propels me to the market; if fact, it’s a weekly ritual. I like going on Sunday mornings for many reasons, it’s calmer with less crowds, which gives me a chance to talk to people with greater ease. I’m going to start a new “Market Feature” on this site where I’ll be writing about what’s new at the Jean Talon Market. Twice a month I’ll feature a specific ingredient, product, or purveyor.
If there’s one person in particular I enjoy talking to, it’s Mr Birri from the Birri Brother’s Kiosk. If ever there was a calmer, gentler horticulturalist at the market, I’ve yet to meet him. I ask a lot of questions and Birri’s always gracious with his answers; he’s also a man with a deep knowledge and passion for what he grows. He’s currently stocked with some baby Spanish onions, several potted herbs, as well as a huge variety of leafy greens, many of which you won’t find anywhere else, ready to be planted in your garden. I asked Birri when we should expect some of the vegetable crop to come in, “the first of the local asparagus will arrive in a couple of days, followed by some lettuce.”
For now though, if you intend on starting a vegetable garden, I strongly recommend you go see him, anybody in green overalls will be more than happy to help and answer any questions you might have.

Fig.2. Baby Spanish Onions. Just trim the ends and clean them. When you twirl the pasta the onions will twirl as well. If you can't find these onions, use some chives, green onions, or garlic leaves. The garlic leaves will be out in about two weeks and are incredible in a pasta dish.
Pasta with baby Spanish onions, pancetta, peas and mint.

I remember being in Italy when I was very young, I would watch my father and uncle eat a plate of pasta while simultaneously taking a bite out of an onion. They were sweet, Spring onions, about the size of an apple. This seasonal indulgence was the inspiration for this dish.

Fig.3. A veritable pasta "in bianco". The sauce is made up of the fat from the pancetta, the oil, and the starchy water the pasta cooks in.

500g spaghetti, linguini or fettucini
1/3 cup of pancetta, cubed (you can also use bacon)
3 tbsp olive oil
4 anchovy filets
1 bunch of baby Spanish onions, cleaned and left whole—just remove the end tips. (if you can’t find the onions, you can substitute fresh chives, spring green onions, or garlic leaves. The quantity should vary depending on your penchant for onions.)
3 cloves of garlic, chopped
½ cup of frozen peas
About ten mint leaves
Freshly grated black pepper


Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Set a large non-stick pan over medium low heat and slowly cook the pancetta until the fat starts to render, making sure it doesn’t get crispy, about 8 to 10 minutes. Place the pancetta in a bowl making sure to leave the fat in the pan, add about 3 tablespoons of olive oil to the pan and set the heat to medium. Add the anchovies and cook until they dissolve, about 2 minutes. Add the onions and cook for about 5 minutes, taking care not to cook them too fast, add the garlic and cook 3 to 5 minutes more. Add the peas, and rip the mint leaves with your hands directly over the pan, add the pancetta back to the pan and cook for an additional 4 to 5 minutes.
At this point your pasta should almost be ready, add 1 ladle full of pasta water to your pan (you should also reserve 1 cup of the pasta water before you drain the pasta), when your pasta is very al dente, drain and add it to your pan. Mix everything together. If the pasta seems dry, add some of the reserved, pasta water. (you can also use chicken or vegetable stock if you wish.) Cook in the pan for another 2 minutes, this final stage will bring everything together by allowing the pasta to further absorb the liquid in the pan. Plate and sprinkle with a little grated cheese and freshly, grated, black pepper.

Fig.3. Harder lettuce, such as this red and frisee variety grow well despite the colder nights. Birri grows these himself in his green house.

Fig.4. Baby Swiss chard. Another Birri original. Unlike regular Swiss chard, this variety can be picked while still small and eaten like a salad, or, if you wish, you can let it grow and cook it.