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Artichokes braised with saffron, black olives and almonds

Time 30 minutes
Yields Serves 2 to 4
Artichokes braised with saffron, black olives and almonds
(Los Angeles Times)
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Larayne, the owner of my wife’s favorite clothes shop, was extolling the virtues of a particularly snazzy gray suit: “This is the base,” she said, “then you can add other pieces to make it your own.” At this point she began to rattle off at top speed combinations of blouses, scarves, jewelry and accessories -- and I must have lost consciousness. When I came to, the only thing I could think of was braised artichokes.

Whether this was the result of two hours of sitting in a chair reading People magazine or just the way my brain is naturally bent, I’ll leave to you (I will say that at this time of year, artichokes are never far from my mind).

I prefer to think there was method to my madness, one specific method in particular. For the last couple of years, I’ve been on a braising binge -- not for meat but for vegetables. Many vegetables take well to braising, but the artichoke is the most versatile.

Most cooks know that when you cook a tough piece of meat with a little bit of liquid, you get a tender dish with a remarkably intense glaze. What many people don’t know is that you can do the same thing with vegetables.

I’m not sure where I picked up on this trick. It may have been from a fennel recipe in Ada Boni’s “Il Piccolo Talismano della Felicita,” what I think of as the Italian “Joy of Cooking.” As I recall, Boni cooks the fennel in a covered pot with some butter and water. When the fennel is soft, she removes the lid, raises the heat, and lets the liquid evaporate, leaving behind a flavorful glaze.

When I thought this through, it made perfect sense: Vegetables are composed mainly of cellulose, and cellulose softens when cooked with water. Furthermore, during the heating, the liquid in the vegetable expands, bursting those softened cells and mingling to create complex flavors (this is why cooked vegetables almost always taste better than raw).

That much is elementary; it happens every time you boil a vegetable. The particular brilliance of braising lies in what happens afterward. Because rather than use a great quantity of water, in which the vegetable’s juices are diluted and lost, this method uses just a little.

This way, when you remove the lid and turn up the heat, most of the moisture evaporates. The concentrated essence that is left behind becomes emulsified with the cooking fat, creating a deeply flavored glaze that thinly coats the cooked vegetables.

This will work with almost any vegetable, though the specific measures will vary. Some vegetables are harder and denser than others and will take slightly more water and time to soften completely.

You also may find some variation depending on the size of your pan, the fit of your lid and what exactly your notion of “medium heat” might be. Don’t worry; braising is forgiving. If the liquid evaporates too quickly, just add a little more water and keep cooking.

I’ve used this method on everything from carrots to cabbage. But I particularly like it with artichokes. This is partly for evangelical reasons. I love artichokes and it distresses me no end that the only way most people eat them is steamed, chilled and filled with mayonnaise.

There is certainly nothing wrong with this (particularly if the mayonnaise is well-made and flavored with, perhaps, minced tarragon). But it is my personal crusade to get people to think of artichokes as more than glorified chips and dip.

Artichokes are extremely versatile, with a big enough flavor to match almost anything you can throw at them. At the same time, they have an incredible knack for stepping out of the way and letting other, more delicate, flavors shine through.

Two very different dishes that emerged from my shopping-inspired haze demonstrate this. In the first, the brassy side of the artichoke stands up to black olives, garlic, red pepper, saffron, almonds and orange zest. That’s a flavor combination that would steamroll most vegetables, but the artichoke emerges with its identity intact.

Braise the chokes with cream and ham, on the other hand, and you get a dish that -- for an artichoke -- comes dangerously close to subtle. In this one, the rich, melded flavors of the sauce combine to play off the artichoke’s natural sweetness. In fact, to my taste, this is the recipe that best shows off the complex flavor of the vegetable itself.

It is important to remember that the flavor of the artichoke changes pretty dramatically depending on how thoroughly it is cooked. Undercook it slightly to keep that metallic edge for the bigger, bolder dishes. Cook it a little more for the gentler recipes.

The most important thing to remember is not the specific recipes themselves but the basic technique that underlies them. One pound of trimmed artichokes, one-half cup of water, a bit of fat. Cook covered over medium heat until tender. Remove the lid and raise the heat to form a glaze.

Just looking at those dishes, I’m already vamping on alternatives. A little prosciutto and cream would be amazing with spring onions and snap peas. And what about cooking artichokes with green olives and salted anchovies?

Braised artichokes: Think of them as a chic gray suit you can dress up any way you want and make your own.

*

Take a little more off the sides

Trimming artichokes for cooking is a lot less complicated than it might seem just from reading the instructions.

Hold the artichoke in your left hand with the tip facing toward you and the stem facing away.

Slowly turn the artichoke while making an abbreviated sawing motion with a sharp paring knife to cut through the tough outer leaves. (It’s easier to control if you use the base of the knife rather than the tip.)

When you can discern the natural cone shape of the artichoke, adjust the knife to follow it. Keep trimming until you’ve cut away enough of the tough leaves so you can see only light green at the bases.

Cut away the top half-inch or so of the tip of the artichoke and place the artichoke in acidulated water (water to which vinegar or lemon juice or lime juice has been added) to keep the cut surfaces from discoloring.

With the paring knife, trim away the end of the stem, then peel the stem and base, working your way around the artichoke in several strokes, going from the stem end to where the base meets the leaves.

When you’re done, there should be no dark green tough spots left, only pale green and ivory.

If you’re using baby artichokes, leave the chokes whole. If you’re using medium artichokes, quarter the chokes. The easiest way to do this is to set the artichoke on the cutting board so it is upside down, resting on the cut surface of the tip. Cut it in half vertically, then in half again.

Check the choke. With most, there will probably be nothing but a little fuzz and you can just put the quarters in the lemon water and go on to the next artichoke. For larger artichokes, there will be what looks like very fine hair. Cut just below that to the very base of the leaves and it just will pop off, leaving a clean heart below.

1

Trim the artichokes. If using mediums, quarter them lengthwise. Place them in a bowl of acidulated water (water with a little vinegar, lemon or lime juice) to prevent discoloration. Drain.

2

Cook the artichokes, garlic, red pepper flakes, saffron, orange zest, salt, olive oil and water over medium heat in a large, covered skillet until the artichokes are tender, about 15 minutes. Shake the pan from time to time to stir the contents. If necessary, add a little more water to keep the bottom covered.

3

When the artichokes are easily pierced with a knife, remove the lid and raise the heat to high. Cook, stirring, until only a thin coating of liquid remains on the bottom of the pan, about 3 minutes.

4

Add the orange juice, olives, almonds and parsley, and cook, stirring, just until they are heated through. Serve warm.