This Vegetarian Loves Eating Hearts: Artichoke Hearts, That Is!
There are some things you hate as a child, as a grown-up continue hating, and in all probability will die hating. In my case, math and being called Becky.
There are some things you hate as a child, but as a grown-up realize that in the hands of a competent professional they can actually be quite rewarding. Take, for example, a perm and french kissing.
And there are some things you hate as a child, but as grown-up come to love them so deeply they become your raison d’etre and you fervently wish you could travel back in time and inform your child self about their virtues, thus avoiding missing out on 20 years of pleasure. Opera, for example. Non-fiction books. And, of course, artichokes.
I love artichokes with a passion one can only feel for vegetables and men whose spiny, tough exteriors harbor a soft heart within. This was not always true (either for the artichokes or the men, but let’s talk artichokes); I spent the first 15 years of my life loathing them for reasons I can no longer recall. Then, at 15, I got my first job at an Italian deli called Gino’s (all the books on writing tell you not to foreshadow too heavily, but sometimes life is stranger than fiction) where they sold a few genuine Italian products and lots of pseudo-Italian products (it was the ‘80s before the whole foodie movement began, so mozzarella curds from Wisconsin were considered Italian). The place was owned by an Italian husband/Irish wife team whose domestic squalls were legendary and often involved flourishes like hurling pots of boiling coffee at each other or locking each other in the cold storage in the back. I was never privy to one of these, but I sure heard about them the next day.
At Gino’s they made a sandwich which is one of my touchstone life foods…you know, those ten-ish dishes which flavours you can conjure up precisely in your mind for years afterwards and are inexorably tied to a specific person, place, or moment in your past. Also on the list are my aunt Anthula’s baklava, graham crackers dipped in milk (my favorite Saturday morning cartoon breakfast), the brick burger at the Laurel Tavern in Madison, WI, the Turtle Sundae at Creamy Delight in Chicago, beef stew made in the Crock Pot (we had that every Sunday for lunch), Fannie May’s Trinidads (before the company was sold…they don’t taste the same now), spanakopita from Cross Rhodes in Chicago, Shasta, and…. Gino’s Vegetarian Special (another example of foreshadowing) which was basically a cheese sandwich with a kind of chopped spread made with spicy green peppers, olives, and artichoke hearts. Except I didn’t know it was artichoke hearts until I had already gotten hooked on the sandwich, and the discovery of what I had been eating for lunch for months was a shock.
Now, as an adult, I absolutely adore artichokes prepared in almost every way imaginable. When my mother-in-law has been particularly obnoxious and knows she’s in the doghouse she makes me stuffed hearts for lunch and all is forgiven. I have been known to take the train to Rome exclusively to eat carciofi alla giudea– whole deep fried artichokes–which you can’t find in Umbria, or stick close to home to eat carciofi alla romana—stewed hearts with garlic and either parsley or mint—which, despite their name, you can find in Umbria. I’ll also take them batter-fried (mmmm, batter fried artichoke hearts…I just need a moment here…okay, I’m back), roasted, or raw (sliced paper-thin with shaved parmeggiano and balsamic vinegar…but they have to be right-from-the-backyard-garden tender).
But my favorite artichoke dish is simple marinated artichokes preserved in olive oil. I always have a jar going in the fridge, so when I get a hankering I can just pluck a tender heart out with a fork and pop it in my mouth. They are wonderful added to a tossed salad, chopped into a sandwich spread, diced into a cold pasta or rice salad, or simply served as part of an antipasto platter.
Cleaning artichokes and reducing them to the heart is a test of perserverance and sang-froid…the weak-willed often fail to completely remove all the tough outer leaves and are forever picking artichoke fibers out from between their teeth. It is also a test of forethought, for if you forget to wear your rubber gloves your blackened hands will remind you of your morning spent trimming artichokes for weeks.
Once you’ve trimmed them, boil the hearts in 1 ½ liter of white wine vinegar mixed with ½ liter of water, a sliced lemon, a tablespoon of salt, 3 whole cloves, 3 peppercorns, and 3 fresh bay leaves for about 15 minutes, or until they are fork-tender. Drain the hearts and arrange them in a single layer on a clean kitchen towel, lay another clean towel over the top, and leave them to dry from 6 to24 hours.
When they’re dry, pop them into glass jars and cover with good quality olive oil. You may need to check on the jars after a couple of days and top off the oil if the level has fallen. The important thing is to have your hearts completely immersed in the oil.
Enjoy your hearts for as long as they last…which, in my experience, ain’t that long. Sometimes–just sometimes–it’s really great to be a grown-up!