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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Artichoke, by any other name

(If you are reading this post on a RSS reader, you might want to click through to Chez Pim for the slideshow.)

Thorny artichokes, l'artichauts épineux, épines, carciofi, these artichokes go by quite a few names around the Mediterranean. I was duly impressed the first time I saw them at the big market in San Remo a couple years ago. I'd never seen artichokes with such intimidating thorns before. They are vindictive little buggers too –and this I speak from first hand experience trimming them. I still go ouch every time I pick one up. You know, a little pre-emptive cry for the inevitable future.

According to many chefs and serious foodies I know –and the French Wikipedia even agrees- these thorny artichokes are perhaps the tastiest of all the artichoke varieties. Hence the thorns as a defensive measure, perhaps? In France they are found around Nice and the surrounding areas, whereas in Italy they appear to be everywhere –though the size (hence frightfulness) of the thorns varies some. Beside the deadly thorns, these artichokes are also marked by the gorgeous violet/lavender streaks and the shape that is more elongate and conical than the usual round Globe artichokes common in the US.

I'm not going to give you a primer on trimming an artichoke. Frankly I avoid that kitchen chore whenever I can. But my friend Sam at Becks and Posh did a lovely illustrated post on this very topic a while ago so go and check her out.

How do you cook these artichokes (or any artichoke) you wonder? When we were on our cooking vacation –is there a different kind?- in Mougins a while back, our friend Mikael did his take on the classic Provençale dish of Mediterraean Seabass and Artichokes for us. I've worked out a recipe here for you to try.

Seabass and poached artichokes in mandarin-olive oil emulsion
For 4

4 filets of Seabass, 3.5-4oz per piece, preferably with skin on and at close to room temperature as you could manage
6-8 artichokes, trimmed and quartered
Olive oil for cooking the fish
Salt and pepper to taste

For poaching the artichokes
3 cups of water
½ tablespoon of salt
Juice from half a lemon

For the sauce
Juice from 1-2 Mandarins or one large orange
6 tablespoons very good extra-virgin olive oil*
Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a small sauce pan add the water, salt and lemon juice and bring the liquid to a boil. Then add the trimmed and quartered artichokes. Poach for 5-7 minutes over a low flame. Start checking the doneness of the artichokes at about 5 minutes: the tip of a knife should go into the aritchoke without any resistance once it is done. Turn off the heat and strain the artichokes, set aside for plating later.
2. Heat a sauté pan -a non-stick pan will be easier to work with- until medium hot, add about 3 tablespoon of olive oil to coat the pan well. Sprinkel a little salt on both sides of the filets, arrange them on the pan skin side down, and let cook undisturbed for 2 minutes or until the skin side is golden brown.
3. Turn the filets over and continue to cook for 2-3 minutes. Test the doneness by using a cake taster. The metal stick should go in and out with no resistance when the fish is done. If you don't have a cake taster, you can straighten out a matal paper clip and use it instead.
4. While the fish is cooking you can make the quick sauce. Begin with 3 tablespoons of the Mandarin juice and a pinch of salt, using a whip –or a fork if you're good- slowly mix into it the six tablespoons of olive oil to create an emulsion. Add more Mandarin juice if the sauce is not sharp enough, or even a squeeze of lemon. Finish with a few turns of black pepper.
5. When the fish is done, take the filets out of the pan and place each on a plate to serve.
6. Arrange a few pieces artichokes to each of the plates, and then pour a couple of tablespoons of the Mandarin/olive oil emulsion on top of the artichokes and around the Seabass. Serve immediately.

p.s. If you really want to be fancy, reserve one raw trimmed artichoke to be shaved on to the finished plate. That way you will have a contrasting textures and flavors between cooked and raw artichokes in the final dish.

Wine pairing notes

How to drink like a snob:
Since the dish is of Provençale origin, wines from that area would be fun to serve with it. Perhaps you might try a white wine from the Cassis region, or those from the obscure Bellet appellation from the mountains just inland from the Côte d'Azur.

And since the fish and the artichokes are also plentiful on the Southern Italian coast, Patrice Boyle, the proprietor of my favorite little wine shop in Santa Cruz, Soif, suggests a white from the Amalfi Coast. Perhaps something from Marisa Cuomo, whose delicious white wines, made predominantly from the local grape variety Falanghina, always go well with fish. The citrus notes on the wines will also be a great with the Mandarin emulsion sauce, and will provide enough acidity to stand up to the artichokes.

Actually practical suggestion:
Since the Drink Like a Snob note isn't entirely practical. Here's a suggestion that you could actually use.

For this dish, you want a white wine, certainly. You also don't want oak or vanilla in the wine -so no Chardonnay, with a leaf turning or otherwise. Those things would be horrid with the artichokes. Stay with wines with a floral or fruity nose. Also choose something on the acidic side: white wines with a bit of a sweet note will be even sweeter when paired with artichokes, so stay away from them –the wines I mean, not the artichokes.

*A note on olive oil: The best oil for this recipe is a low-acid type olive oil made from ripe and mild olives. The green-ish Tuscan style olive oil -which stylistically tends to be from more assertive olives that are not fully ripen- wouldn't work so well here. Instead, use Ligurian oil from Italy or Catalan oil from around Barcelona. Spanish olive oils are also generally lower in acid than the Californian or Tuscan varieties.


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