Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Saturday Date Night: Roman Arti-CHOKE

Artichoke before...
It was bound to happen.  When encountering oft-eaten but never-prepared items, one is venturing onto thin ice, from where the cracks and melting can cause one to fall in.  Or something like that.

This Saturday was meant to be an evening in Roma, one of my all-time favorite cities in the world.  I spent quite a few lovely days there in my youth and cemented my crush on Audrey Hepburn by lilting through the 1954 film Roman Holiday (don't worry, my wife approves), so I thought what better way to celebrate an early-returning spring than to hearken back to the eternal city.  We were going to do so by starting with the proverbial Jewish Artichokes, a great antipasto that takes young artichokes and basically fries them in olive oil, leaving crispy leaves to peel off and nibble the edges.  The sort of young artichoke required is a common ingredient in the food stalls of Roman markets but not in the produce section of my local grocery.  So we settled for large, not-quite-right-for-the-job globe artichokes.  This led to a recipe improvisation towards Roman artichokes, another simple preparation that uses olive oil with garlic and parsley to create a different but quite-decent affect.

...Arti-CHOKE after
Trouble was that I could not quite get past the first step of preparation, which involved trimming the artichoke.  Now, this can be an intimidating step for aspiring chefs, and I mulled over this one for some time before I jumped in.  Peeling away leaves, cutting off artichoke tops, cutting off the base, something did not quite add up.  I was not sure what I was looking for as a result, and then before I knew it, the artichokes were chopped to shreds without harvesting the hearts intact with the base that was where the recipe was meant to start.  I thought I followed instructions decently from what information I found online to describe artichoke trimming, but it was a fruitless (quite literally) endeavor.  For those keeping score, it turned out to be: Arti-CHOKES 4, actually trimmed artichokes 0.  (And to add insult to injury, I finally found a decent video on YouTube from the Gourmet Magazine test kitchen that better illustrated what steps to take - oh bother...)

Now at this point, I was feeling quite glum.  An immovable object, my wife might say.  It took me a good 10 minutes to break my feelings of failure and inadequacy - and to remind myself that our little culinary experiment was bound to encounter such hiccups along the way.  I will get this artichoke thing right and prove myself a worthy honorary Roman at some point, but not tonight - and it was time to stop languishing on the lost appetizer and move on to the main course.

All's well that ends well - Saltimbocca on an evening in Roma...
It was good that I chose something much easier as salvation, the old Roman standby Saltimbocca, which literally translates to "jump in the mouth".  It's easy to achieve such results when you focus on quality ingredients and let their flavors shine through the dish.  A little melted butter, some veal scallopini, sage leaves pinned with prosciutto on top, then a pan fry followed by the addition of cooking white wine to intensity the taste of the golden brown veal; by this time, my recollection of Roman artichokes was long forgotten, and I looked forward to this little slice of heaven as substitute.  Combine that with Brussels sprouts with almonds that we stumbled upon through planning our first Saturday Date Night, and we were able to redeem the evening's efforts.  Paired nicely with a fruit-forward but smooth Banfi Rosso di Montalcino, a bolder Sangiovese wine from the Tuscan region, and I was quite sated.  I suppose the net-balance of the night's efforts was positive, and I look forward to successfully taming the grand artichoke at some point; in the meantime, we are already contemplating what next week's Saturday Date Night will bring.
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