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I’ve just finished eating an artichoke, one of my favorite foods. As I peeled off the leaves, dipped them into lite Miracle Whip and scraped them off my teeth, I remembered the first time I ever ate one of these strange foods.
I had never had an artichoke before moving away to California. My mother was not one for serving anything so exotic. I don’t remember seeing one in a grocery store. I had heard of them and might even have seen a picture of one, but never had one lying on a plate in front of me.
The event was so traumatic I can recall exactly when and where it took place.
I was taken out to dinner by my fiance, who was a native Californian, eager to introduce me to all the wonders of his birthplace.
The restaurant was formidable, even to someone used to eating in some fairly fancy and famous spots in New York City. It was The Top of the Mark, a lush eatery on the penthouse floor of the plush Mark Hopkins Hotel, which sits on top of one of the highest San Francisco Hills. It is named for Mark Hopkins a turn of the century railroad tycoon and millionaire.
Like the other millionaires of the time and place, Hopkins had made his money
during the gold rush when he was a store keeper who catered to the miners and put his money into the railroad. His big mansion stands across the road from the hotel. When I lived there it was an exclusive men’s club and probably still is. It was said of him, that he never acquired any polish despite his wealth and could be seen sitting in the window in his red underwear, reading the paper. This apparently annoyed his wife who aspired to a social position she never could quite pull off.
I don’t remember the rest of the meal but I vividly recall having a weird looking object placed before me. It looked like a hand grenade and I simply could not figure out what the heck I was supposed to do with it.
I was told to peel off a leaf. With what? My fingers? Then what? Thank goodness I didn’t proceed to pop it into my mouth and start chewing. That’s when I learned the improbable technique of scraping the tiny soft part at the bottom of the leaf across my teeth, after the equally improbable act of dipping the part to be scraped into the dish of melted butter that came with the choke.
What to do with the messy leaf - why, put it in the empty dish that came with
the other items at my place. I silently and swiftly sent a prayer upwards that I wouldn’t drip melted butter on the tablecloth or worse, on the front of my new dress for which I had spent a week’s wages. Somehow, I managed to handle the leaf eating.
Next, came what apparently was the most important part - getting out the heart
which is the very bottom of the thing and, I was told, the very best part. In a restaurant, I found out later, the heart is removed in the kitchen and placed on the serving plate. My dinner companion told the waiter I had to learn how to do it.
Now came the big surprise. To get to the center and edible part of the heart one has to remove a lot of straw, and this isn’t always easy, especially the first time you do it. I used a spoon, proper way or not and this is still the way I do it. Now, however, is the best part of the struggle. This is one of life’s great gastronomical treats.
I was hooked forever more on artichokes, and remain so. Later, after moving to a small valley south of San Francisco, we were delighted to find, on our first 20 minute drive over the Santa Cruz Mountains to the sea, we encountered a small Portuguese village, right on the sea, dedicated to growing artichokes, fields of them as far as the eye could see. The climate, with just enough fog and sun was perfect for them. For one dollar you could fill a big brown paper bag to take home and enjoy.
I had a friend who preserved artichoke hearts. Occasionally I would join her in the happy pursuit We’d buy lots of bags, go home and cook them, dig out the
hearts and put them up. We’d nibble on leaves as we went. Cooking artichokes is not difficult when you use a few shortcuts. You have to realize that the leaves have very sharp little thorns, or needles, right at the top. These have to be removed. You can cut them off. I like to cut off the stem first, then take a sharp knife and cut off the top third of the choke, being careful not to get pricked by the needles. Then remove remaining needles with kitchen shears.
If you’re cooking several chokes pack them, stem side up in large pot, put in
enough water to come up to about half point on the chokes, cover and simmer about 30 minutes or until fork goes easily into soft stem. Drain each choke. If you’re cooking just one or two chokes it’s easy to do in your microwave, which is how I do mine. Put them, stem side up, in a microwaveable dish with water, cover and steam 15 minutes or until stem is soft. There are various dips to use, it’s a matter of personal choice. Whatever you decide, I wish you great joy and happy eating.
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