There is a restaurant my family goes to quite often that serves wonderful short ribs, makes a killer hamburger and has a pot pie that will make you fall to your knees. Unfortunately, they only know one way to cook a vegetable--boiled, and quite nearly to death. While we recognize that different cuts of meat require different cooking approaches, sometimes it seems that vegetables are relegated to one-size-fits-all status.
So while we considerately braise tough cuts of meat to make them soft and luscious, fry a hamburger for a crisp crust and juicy interior, and gently poach chicken to keep it from becoming dry and stringy, we carelessly cook vegetables as if they were afterthoughts.
That occurred to me one recent weekend while I was preparing this vegetable stew. At the market I had picked up some artichokes--they’re at the peak of their season--and paired them with freshly dug little boiling potatoes. To shift the balance from sweet to earthy, I threw in some brown mushrooms. The idea--after a weekend of good eating--was to make a vegetable stew that would be filling enough for a light dinner.
I started by steaming the potatoes. You can boil them if you like, but I find that the water they absorb during the boiling process dilutes the flavor somewhat. Steaming leaves the taste bright and intense. I braised the artichokes, cooking them with oil and just a bit of water. Again, the goal is intensity--the final cooking over high heat with the lid off evaporates all the water so the vegetables are glazed in an artichoke-olive oil syrup. Finally, I browned the mushrooms over high heat in just a little oil, cooking off their moisture (this not only intensifies the flavor but prevents the stew from becoming a murky brown mess from mushroom juices).
Different vegetables demand different approaches. Plain sauteing, without any added liquid, only works for vegetables that contain a lot of water, like mushrooms. It takes heat and moisture to break down the tough cellulose most vegetables are made of. (You were wondering why those carrots stayed so hard no matter how long you cooked them.)
Finally, while you can steam almost anything, that doesn’t mean it’s always the best way to cook it. Plain steamed vegetables by themselves seem like diet food, more penance than pleasure. They’re best used in combination with other things--either served with some sort of sauce or mixed into a more complicated dish.
Though I love to braise vegetables such as artichokes, braising doesn’t work very well with potatoes. They contain so much starch that it clouds the glaze and sticks to the bottom of the pan. And it certainly wouldn’t work for mushrooms.
That’s three widely varied cooking processes working toward a single goal. When I brought the artichokes, potatoes and mushrooms together, all that was necessary was one final fillip--shards of salty, creamy pecorino Romano cheese to melt gradually over the top of each plate.
Artichokes can be somewhat tricky to cook. They contain a chemical compound called cynarin, which is a very bad thing if you’re trying to pair them with wine, but a good thing if you’re combining them with anything else.
Cynarin has the unusual effect of making everything taste sweeter. Take a bite of cooked artichoke and then sip some water. Notice the sweetness? You probably also notice that it is not necessarily a pleasant taste. It seems more like the artificial chemical sweetness you get from aspartame than the full, rounded flavor you get from naturally occurring sugars. You can just imagine what that will do to the taste of a glass of wine. Even the best will have that distinctive warm Fresca finish.
The Italians, with their genius for making something from nothing (or in this case, less than nothing), have developed an after-dinner drink from the artichoke, called Cynar. It is black as bile and just about as bitter. Yet once you get over the initial shock, it is oddly pleasing. Somehow it’s just the thing to sip after a big dinner.
For this reason, the Italians--who are just as susceptible to food-health lunacy as anyone--have classed it as a digestivo, or digestive drink. They believe that when you sip it, it tunes up your tummy in much the same way a can of STP cleans up a dirty car engine (in fact, they are of somewhat similar color and texture). There is some scientific evidence, though far from conclusive, to suggest this may actually work. Cynarin does promote the secretion of bile, which might aid in digestion.
Whatever effect cynarin has or doesn’t have on your stomach, it does make for some nice dishes. I like to pair artichokes with foods that already have a subtle sweetness--meats such as pork and fish, and vegetables like potatoes and fava beans. This way that added note fits so naturally that you hardly notice it.
Instead of a definite sweetening, the effect is more of a heightening of flavors. Dishes with artichokes are rarely subtle. They’re big, noisy, brass band food. Throw in as much garlic as you like, maybe even capers and anchovies too. Rosemary? No problem. And some mint, some crushed red pepper flakes ... what else? Salty cheese? Why not?
Just so long as you give the vegetables their proper respect.