The porcupines of the vegetable world

A preteen boy develops a fondness for globe artichokes, but how does Dad cook them?

The other day my son caught my ear with a strange request. He asked me for an artichoke.

Only one parental rejoinder was possible: "Why?"

It turned out that during a visit to a friend's house, the boy's mom had served globe artichokes as part of the dinner. "And you ate it?" I asked, trying to mask my surprise.

"It was good," said Anton.

An artichoke of all things. Come to think of it, I don't know if I qualify to be surprised, because I've never eaten an artichoke.

When I was a kid, such an exotic veggie (it is a vegetable, isn't it?) would never have made it past the front door of my meat-and-potatoes family's house. I chuckle when I think back on a "Little Rascals" episode on TV in which Stymie (I think) is told that the thing on his plate is an artichoke. With bugged-out eyes he shakes his head and declaims, "It might've choked Artie, but it ain't gonna choke me!"

So.

I would have thought that artichokes belong to that category of vegetables that kids avoid at all costs – as if it were a law. Included are Brussels sprouts, asparagus, spinach, parsnips, and broccoli.

A number of kids learn to enjoy these foods, of course, but for some, the aversion is so deeply rooted that it lasts a lifetime. Think of the first President Bush, who went out of his way to condemn broccoli to the netherworld of foods unfit for human consumption. In protest, broccoli farmers drove truckloads of the vegetable to Washington and unloaded it in front of the White House. (There are, after all, greater furies than a woman scorned.)

I wouldn't touch broccoli as a kid, although my parents, especially my mother, seemed to enjoy it. I remember when I was about 10, her casually slipping a stalk onto my plate with the offhand admonition to "try it." Frowning, I poked at it with my fork, as if expecting it to sprout legs and leap from the table. I examined it rather antiseptically, but just couldn't bring myself to deliver it to my mouth. It was as if the broccoli bore a clearly printed label that read, "Adults only" – which was just fine with me. I passed on it.

But sometime in my 20s I started to eat it – raw at first, dipped in ranch dressing. This was a sort of bridge to steamed broccoli with butter, which I also eat with great relish now, as well as spinach (fresh, not steamed), asparagus, parsnips, and Brussels sprouts.

This self-awareness of how my palate matured has made me a keen observer of kids' eating habits. Anton has a broad array of tastes, for which I am grateful. It makes it so easy to feed him and to travel with him, as he is willing to try anything. (Well, almost. During a trip to Belize, he drew the line at conch chowder.)

But his friends are picky, picky, picky. Last week one of his buddies was over and stayed for supper. I made chicken, mashed potatoes, and – yes – broccoli.

The boy examined the vegetable with a suspicious eye. "What's this?" he asked with something more than curiosity but short of disgust. "It looks like little trees."

It was hard to believe that he had never seen broccoli before. "Try it," I said, echoing my mother.

Well, Jesse did try it, and, after a few chews, said it "wasn't bad." (Can there be higher praise of one's cooking from a 12-year-old?)

Back to artichokes. I made it my mission today to go out and find one.

When I entered the grocery store, I suddenly felt slightly uneasy about my intent. I mean, just how does one buy an artichoke? You squeeze tomatoes, seek out yellow bananas, and smell cantaloupes to test for maturity. But what can one possibly do to an artichoke?

It didn't take me long to find them. I mean, how could I miss the vegetable version of a porcupine? Looking the artichokes over, I wondered how it ever occurred to someone that they might be edible. I picked one up and struck a casual pose, trying to look like an experienced inspector of artichokes. I squeezed it, took a whiff, and then lifted a couple of leaves to take a gander within. All right, then, I'll take this one.

Home again. I'm standing at the kitchen counter, the artichoke lying in state before me. It's green, prickly, and has a stalk. So far, so good.

Only one question remains: what on earth do I do with it?

Cream of Artichoke Soup

Wash artichokes and cut off the top fourth. Also remove purplish leaves, which will be tough, as well as tips of petals, if desired. Cut the stem close to the base. After trimming, place each artichoke in water to which lemon juice has been added. When all are ready, put the artichokes in a deep pan containing 2 cups of water. Cover and cook until tender (when base is easily pierced with a knife, about 45 minutes). Allow the artichokes to cool to room temperature. Reserve the cooking water.

Remove the flesh from inside the bottom third of each leaf and place in medium soup pot along with the reserved cooking liquid.

Remove the fuzzy choke from each artichoke bottom and discard.

Coarsely dice the artichoke bottoms and place in the soup pot. Stir in the chicken broth, potato, carrot, onion, celery, garlic, and marjoram. Simmer until the vegetables are very soft and the liquid is reduced by one-third, about 45 minutes.

Remove the soup from the pot and purée in a blender.

Return the puréed soup to the pot and blend in the cream and the Parmesan cheese. Heat on low until the soup is warmed through, but don't allow it to boil. Taste and add salt or pepper, if desired.

Serves 4 to 6.

NOTE: Two packages frozen or 2 cans of artichoke hearts may be substituted for fresh ones. Chop before proceeding with recipe.

3 tablespoons lemon juice

2 cups water

2-1/2 cups chicken broth

1 medium potato, chopped

1 medium carrot, diced

1 medium onion, chopped

1 large stalk celery, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1/2 teaspoon dried marjoram

1 cup heavy cream or half-and-half

1/4 cup grated fresh Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

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