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Prickly, but tender at heart

Braising transforms the artichoke, intensifying or softening flavors while adding a rich glaze.

March 24, 2004|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

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.

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