Russ Parsons: In Search of Quality Produce

Food and wine columnist Russ Parsons wrote How to Pick a Peach. He searches for top-quality fruits and vegetables and lists the reasons why supermarket produce is not always the best.

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Excerpt: 'How to Pick a Peach'

'How to Pick a Peach'

Artichokes

Alexander Pope wrote that it was a brave man who first ate an oyster. What possible words can describe the heroism of he who first ate an artichoke?

Not only did he have to consume it, but he probably had to invent it as well. At first glance — and maybe even after patient consideration — little about the artichoke indicates either edibility or conscious creation. The thing looks more like a primitive instrument of war than a domesticated product of agriculture. With its overlapping rows of hard prickly petals, it seems only one step removed from a stick with a nail stuck in it. Yet somehow, sometime, someone almost certainly did create the artichoke. Exactly how, when and who are unclear. Obviously, it happened well before anyone thought to copyright a plant, or even to write a scientific paper claiming academic bragging rights. But there is little doubt that the artichoke was invented.

The vegetable that we call an artichoke is actually the unopened flower bud of a plant that is an improved cardoon. (My colleague Charles Perry says the word "artichoke" is derived from the Arabic al'qarshuf, which translates as "little cardoon.") If you visit ethnic produce markets — particularly Italian ones — you may have seen a cardoon. It looks like a prehistoric stalk of celery. It is outsize and a pale dinosaur gray-green with a thick, stringy skin. Peel it, chop it and cook it, and you'll taste artichoke.

Why did our unnamed farmer decide that the bud of the cardoon was more desirable than the stalk? Is that even what he was going for? Did he really think he had accomplished his goal, or did he simply give up? There is something haphazard, even accidental, about the artichoke. One thing's for certain: no modern plant breeder would dare to come up with something like it. More's the pity. The artichoke is one of spring's great vegetables, with a buttery texture and an appealing flavor — an almost brassy sweetness that combines well with a multitude of other ingredients.

But there's no getting around it, the artichoke is a peculiar vegetable. First, of course, there is its form — like a thistle-covered mace. The edible part of the artichoke is an unopened flower bud, or, more accurately, a collection of flower buds. If it is left to open, the artichoke will turn almost inside out, blossoming into something that looks like a flat pincushion stuck with hundreds of tiny lavender-blue flowers. It is attractive in its own gargantuan way, and fully opened artichoke flowers are sometimes used by avantgarde florists to make visual statements in arrangements. The sharp, tough "petals" or "leaves" of the artichoke are what botanists call bracts, which are actually somewhere between the two. Bracts are tough, leaflike objects that protect the flower.

But the artichoke's contrariness is more than skin-deep. In fact, peel an artichoke and set it aside for a minute, and you'll soon discover another of its eccentricities. Exposed to air, artichokes turn brown or even black. This is not altogether unusual in itself — potatoes do the same thing, and so do peaches and shrimp, among many diverse foods.

The process is what chemists call enzymatic browning. The plant contains a substance that when exposed to oxygen changes the color of the flesh. This is not always bad. All tea would be green if it were not for enzymatic browning. In the case of artichokes, though, it's hard to see the benefit, at least for the cook. But whereas it is almost impossible to prevent enzymatic browning, we can delay it fairly easily, either by preventing exposure to oxygen or by treating the flesh with an acidic compound. Neither of these takes any special equipment, just a bowl filled with acidulated water — plain old tap water to which you've added an acid of some sort (white vinegar and lemon juice work equally well). When you're done, keep the artichokes in the water until you're ready to cook them. Oldtime chefs used to call for cooking artichokes en blanc — in a combination of water, acid and flour. This only slightly improved the color and pretty much wrecked the flavor for anything other than serving them as glorified chips and dip. You're better off settling for only minimal browning.

Another odd thing about the artichoke is its tendency to make everything taste sweeter — not in a good way, but that weird metallic kind of sweet you get from diet soft drinks. This is mostly caused by a naturally occurring chemical called cynarin (artichokes belong to the genus Cynara), which is unique to artichokes. This sweet reaction can be so powerful that it is almost off-putting. Sometimes the flavor is so strong that even a sip of water tastes as if it has been artificially sweetened. It is no surprise that this sweetening makes artichokes extremely unfriendly to wine. It can be reduced by extended cooking, which results in a gentler, more complex flavor. Remember that when you're thinking about a dish: Cook artichokes briefly, and they will have a big, brassy edge that can stand up to the most aggressive seasonings — anchovies, garlic, black olives . . . bring 'em all on. Cook the vegetable more gently, and you'll be surprised at its delicacy.

Unlike most vegetables, which can be harvested only during a single season, artichokes actually bear twice. There is a large harvest in the spring — March to May accounts for about 70 percent of the total crop — and then a smaller one in late fall. Some connoisseurs claim to be able to detect a difference between spring and fall harvests, but if there is one, it is incredibly slight.

And, as if these weren't enough oddities for one plant, the artichoke comes in many different sizes. In season the so-called baby artichokes can be one of the best buys in the produce department. These are actually fully mature chokes that are harvested from exactly the same plants as the big boys at exactly the same time. An artichoke plant sends up many flower stalks, some as tall as six feet. One or two of them will yield the large, steamer-size buds (weighing a pound or more apiece). Maybe half a dozen of them will be medium-size chokes (two or three to a pound). And then there will be a scad of smaller ones (roughly a dozen to a pound). Because most shoppers are interested in artichokes only for steaming, these smaller ones are tough to sell. Most of them go to canning, but many of them wind up in the produce aisle, where they're sold cheap to savvy cooks who know their true value.

WHERE THEY'RE GROWN: Almost all of the artichokes in the United States are grown in California, most of them within fifteen miles of a small town called Castroville. There have been recurring efforts to expand the plantings to other areas in order to expand the season, but they have met with only mixed success.

HOW TO CHOOSE: Artichokes are one of the tougher vegetables; they'll last quite a while with only minimal care. Still, choose the ones that seem heaviest for their size and that don't have any visible damage. You don't have to be too picky about this: the cut stems will, of course, be blackened already. And if there are a few dark spots, they won't affect the flavor. The industry has come up with the marketing term "frost-kissed" for this kind of damage and claims that it makes the hearts sweeter. Perhaps, but it certainly doesn't hurt them any. You can tell really fresh artichokes because their leaves will squeak when you rub them together.

HOW TO STORE: Keep artichokes in the refrigerator, tightly sealed. Don't clean them until shortly before you're ready to cook them.

HOW TO PREPARE: The big "hubcap" artichokes that sell at such a premium price should be steamed, boiled or microwaved.

You can eat them leaves and all. To clean them, cut the stem off flush with the bottom so the artichoke will sit upright on a flat surface. Tear off the tough outer ring of leaves, bending them back from the choke until they snap. Then pull down — this will tear away the worst of the tough, stringy outside. Use sharp kitchen scissors to cut away the top third of each leaf — the spiny part. Rub the cut surfaces with lemon. Steam the artichoke until it is tender.

Exactly how long you need to cook it will depend on the size and the age of the artichoke — figure anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes.

The artichoke is done when you can easily pull a leaf free. I like to remove the bristly heart before serving. To do this, spread the top center leaves as wide as possible without breaking them, then use a serrated grapefruit spoon to dig out the choke.

ONE SIMPLE DISH: The best way to prepare artichokes is by braising. This method is remarkably easy and flexible.

Here's the general outline: Put 2 pounds of artichokes that you've trimmed well in a large skillet with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, 1/2 cup of water and a minced garlic clove. If you like, add some red pepper flakes. Cover the skillet and let simmer over medium heat until the artichokes are tender, about 5 minutes. Raise the heat to high, remove the lid and cook the artichokes until most of the moisture has evaporated and what remains has emulsified with the oil. Toss the artichokes in this glaze and serve immediately.

HOW TO PARE AN ARTICHOKE

You prepare artichokes for cooking differently from when you are planning to stem them and eat the leaves. The goal is to wind up with just the edible parts — the softer inner leaves, heart and stem.

You can do this by tearing away the outer leaves by hand, but the following method is much faster. Since you'll usually be paring at least half a dozen for most recipes, this is a technique worth learning.

TO BEGIN, have a large bowl at your side filled with water and the juice of half a lemon. This acidulated water is where you will put the cleaned artichokes; the lemon juice will keep them from discoloring.

HOLD THE ARTICHOKE in your left hand with the stem facing toward you and the tip facing away. Slowly turn the artichoke against the sharp edge of the knife while making an abbreviated sawing motion. (It's easier to control the knife if you use the base rather than the tip.) You will begin to cut through the tough outer leaves; when you can discern the natural cone shape of the artichoke, adjust the knife to follow it. Keep trimming like this until you've cut away enough of the tough leaves that you can see only light green at the base of the leaves. Cut away the top inch or so of the tip of the artichoke, then dip the artichoke into the lemon water to keep the cut surfaces from discoloring.

WITH A PARING KNIFE, trim away the very tip of the stem, then peel the stem and base of the artichoke, going from the tip to where the base meets the leaves. You'll have to do this in five or six passes to make it all the way around the artichoke. When you're done, there should be no dark green tough spots left, only pale green and ivory. If you're using baby artichokes, leave the choke whole. Just put it in the lemon water and repeat the instructions for the remaining artichokes.

AFTER YOU'VE PARED THE ARTICHOKE, if you're using medium-size ones, you'll probably want to quarter it. The easiest way to do this is to set the artichoke on the cutting board so it is upside down, resting on the cut surface of the tip. Cut it in half vertically, then in half again. Check the choke.

With most, there will probably be nothing but a little fuzz; you can leave that and just put the quarters in the lemon water. Larger artichokes will have what looks like very fine hair. Cut just below that to the very base of the leaves, and the base will pop off, leaving a clean heart below. Put the cleaned quarters in the water and go on to the next artichoke.

Artichokes Stuffed with Ham and Pine Nuts

Baked this way, artichokes turn almost silky, while the stuffing browns to a nice crust. Try experimenting with this stuffing; chopped green olives are good, too.

6 SERVINGS AS A FIRST COURSE

2 tablespoons pine nuts

1/2 lemon

6 medium artichokes

1 garlic clove

1/4 baguette, crust trimmed and cubed (about 2 ounces)

2 ounces ham, cubed

3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

1 teaspoon grated lemon zest

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup dry white wine

Toast the pine nuts in a small skillet over medium heat, stirring, until they are lightly browned and fragrant, about 10 minutes. Set aside.

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Fill a bowl with water and squeeze the lemon juice into it. Keep the squeezed-out lemon half.

Pull off the lower leaves and tough outer leaves from an artichoke; this will be about the first two rings. Using kitchen shears, trim the top half of the next several rings of leaves until you get to the tight central cone, where the leaves are pale green at least two thirds of the way up. Use a knife to cut off the dark green top third. Trim the stem of the artichoke with a paring knife, making a flat base. Rub all the cut surfaces with the lemon half.

Place the artichoke upside down on a work surface and press firmly. Turn the artichoke right side up and use your fingers to spread the leaves as much as possible without breaking them. Use a grapefruit spoon or other small spoon to remove the innermost purple-tipped leaves and then scrape the fuzzy choke from the base.

Place the cleaned artichoke in the bowl of lemon water and repeat with the remaining artichokes.

When all of the artichokes have been cleaned, mince the garlic by dropping it down the feed tube of a food processor while it's running. Stop the machine and add the bread cubes. Pulse 2 or 3 times to break these down. Add the ham and parsley and pulse until the bread and ham are in large crumbs, 4 or 5 times. Remove the blade and stir in the pine nuts, lemon zest and salt.

Drain the artichokes and arrange them in a baking dish just large enough to hold them in a single layer. Fill the central cavity of each artichoke with some of the stuffing mixture, mounding it over the top and working a bit of it between the leaves.

Pour the white wine into the bottom of the baking dish and add just enough water to come to a depth of about ¾ inch. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake until the artichokes are tender enough that you can easily pull out one of the interior leaves (a knife will pierce the base easily as well), about 40 minutes.

Remove the baking dish from the oven and carefully pour the leftover liquid into a small saucepan. Bring it to a boil over high heat and reduce to a thin syrup. Pour the syrup over the cooked artichokes and set aside to cool to room temperature before serving.

Cream of Artichoke Soup with Parmesan Chips

A velvety cream soup using only 1/4 cup of cream? The trick is adding a potato, which not only contributes a subtle earthy flavor but also adds enough starch to thicken the soup. Be careful with these Parmesan chips (a version of the northern Italian classic frico): if left unattended, they tend to disappear all on their own.

8 SERVINGS

4 medium artichokes (about 2 pounds)

1 small onion, diced

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 carrot, diced

4 garlic cloves, minced

1 medium boiling potato (about ½ pound), peeled and diced

Salt

4 cups chicken broth

1/4 cup heavy cream

2 large egg yolks

Fresh lemon juice (optional)

Parmesan Chips (recipe follows)

Pare the artichokes as described on page 40, then cut into quarters and keep in a bowl of acidulated water until ready to use.

Place the onion and olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes. Add the carrot, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and continue cooking until the carrot has softened, 5 to 10 minutes, being careful not to let the vegetables brown.

Add the garlic and potato and cook for another 5 minutes. While the vegetables are cooking, chop the artichoke quarters into 1/2-inch pieces and add them to the saucepan. Add 1 teaspoon salt and cook, covered, for 10 minutes to begin marrying the flavors.

Add the broth and bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the vegetables are soft enough that you can smash them between your fingers, 25 to 30 minutes.

Transfer the mixture to a large bowl and wipe the saucepan clean. Puree the soup in a blender on high speed until light and smooth, about 30 seconds. Do this in 3 batches to keep from overflowing the blender. As each batch is pureed, pour it through a fine-mesh strainer into the saucepan. Stir the soup that's in the strainer to help it pass through.

When all of the soup has been pureed and strained into the saucepan, return the saucepan to medium-low heat. In a bowl, whisk together the heavy cream and egg yolks until smooth. When the puree has neared the simmer, spoon 1/2 cup of it into the cream-egg mixture and whisk until smooth. This will "temper" the egg yolks, cooking them slightly so they won't curdle when you add them to the saucepan.

Slowly whisk the cream-egg mixture into the saucepan and continue to cook, whisking frequently, until the soup has thickened slightly and the texture has become silken, about 5 minutes. Do not let the soup boil, or the egg will curdle. Season to taste with salt and lemon juice, if desired.

Ladle about 1/2 cup of hot soup into each of eight small soup bowls and garnish with a crisp Parmesan chip in the center. Serve.

Parmesan Chips

MAKES 8 CHIPS

3/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

Place the cheese in 1 1/2–tablespoon mounds in a large, dry nonstick skillet. Leave plenty of space between the mounds; you'll be able to cook 4 or 5 mounds per batch. Gently spread each mound into a thin round with your fingers. Place the skillet over low heat. The cheese will melt, begin to bubble and finally, after 3 to 5 minutes, begin to brown around the edges. Sliding the tip of a fork under one edge, flip each chip and continue cooking until the other side is lightly browned, 3 to 5 minutes.

Artichokes Braised with Saffron, Black Olives and Almonds

Artichokes can stand up to the most assertive of flavors. This recipe pushes that theory to the limit, with orange zest, black olives and red pepper flakes (to say nothing of almonds and parsley). The addition of saffron makes the whole dish sing.

4 SIDE DISHES, 2 MAIN DISHES

1 3/4 pounds medium or 2 1/4 pounds baby artichokes, pared and placed in acidulated water (if using medium artichokes, quarter them lengthwise)

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1/2 teaspoon finely grated orange zest

1/2 teaspoon salt

Dash red pepper flakes

Dash saffron

1/2 cup water

1/4 cup olive oil

1 tablespoon fresh orange juice

2 tablespoons chopped, pitted oil-cured black olives

1 tablespoon slivered almonds

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

Cook the artichokes, garlic, orange zest, salt, red pepper flakes, saffron, water and olive oil in a large, covered skillet over medium heat until the artichokes are tender, about 15 minutes. Shake the pan from time to time to stir the contents. If necessary, add a little more water to keep the bottom covered.

When the artichokes are easily pierced with a knife, remove the lid and raise the heat to high. Cook, stirring, until only a thin coating of liquid remains on the bottom of the pan, about 3 minutes.

Add the orange juice, olives, almonds and parsley and cook, stirring, just until they are heated through. Serve warm.

Copyright © 2007 by Russ Parsons. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table

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