Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Artichoke Heart of the Matter

Is this artichoke not a thing of beauty? It's from the estimable Catherine, one of my fellow volunteer instructors at Common Threads. She's working on perfecting her artichoke for an upcoming exam and was kitchen-testing a couple. She gave me one.

"I know you like vegetables," she said, shyly. I do. And I was quite undone that she remembered as much and thought of me.

Okay, it's an artichoke, not an annuity, but it touched me just the same. In these difficult days, the gift of a lovingly prepared artichoke can lift the heart (pardon the pun). Joy is not too much to ask of a vegetable. When food is prepared with care, "there's a communion that's very important -- it really is a sacrament," says John Ash, to whom I turn not just for kitchen technique but for culinary reverence.

Reverence is nothing I'm especially good at, but John ( is a wonderful teacher. After all, he was last year's Cooking Teacher of the Year, so named by the International Association of Culinary Professionals. Prior to that, cheffing at John Ash & Co. and the Vintner's Inn, he defined wine country cuisine.

John can teach you the perfect way to trim an artichoke, but to me, his real gift is in honoring food, not tarting it up to hell. So-called chef reality shows have their fans, but John says, "The chef's role is not to be the star. The chef's role is to be the stage manager. The stars are the wonderful ingredients we have available to us. Our job is to position them and get out of the way."
With a star like an artichoke, what more do you need? It's excellent for detox, high in fiber, vitamin C, folate, magnesium and potassium. It's low in calories -- about 60 for an artichoke as big as your head. It is a true flower, kin to the thistle and sunflower. An artichoke requires a bit of effort and commitment. It does not invite a casual snarfing. As you eat the goodness from each petal-like leaf, there is a peeling away, a deflowering, if you will. Buried beneath its forbidding choke lurks its delicious center, its heart. In that way, it is much like the rest of us. We hide what is tender and precious beneath a bristly exterior.

But not always. Though Catherine's artichoke looked like nature's perfect flower, she had, as I discovered, magically dechoked it. You could get straight to the heart of it. It provided joy, a bit of a life lesson and, with this roasted red pepper dip, a fantastic dinner.

Reverent Red Pepper Dip

3 roasted red peppers (the jarred kind are fine)
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 garlic cloves
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
juice of 1 lemon
1 15-ounce can white beans, rinsed and drained to decrease the sodium
1 large handful of fresh basil leaves
sea salt to taste

Throw everything in the food processor or blender. Give it a whirl until smooth and creamy -- a minute tops. It's the perfect artichoke accessory. Also good with other vegetables and slathered on multigrain toast.

Makes 2 cups, serving 6.

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