Welcome to The Aix-Files

Thanks for checking out The Aix-Files, my
blog postings inspired by my year in and around
Aix-en-Provence. The spot includes travel tips,
discoveries of local food and wine, recipes,
cultural events, interviews and historical
tidbits about Southern France. Enjoy!



Friday, June 3, 2011

Overcoming my Fear of Artichokes




It’s not that I have never prepared them before. I even took a course with a trained professional in Florence. It’s just that each time I face a beautiful bouquet of these prickly thistles, I recoil.

Let’s be honest. Artichokes require a bit of work. Plus a good deal of confidence and some know-how. They are also one of those funny things where, once you’ve done your prep, you discard way more than you consume. Which is one of my issues. It’s my Ukrainian upbringing. I hate being wasteful. But on the other hand, I don’t want my guests chewing on fibrous, indigestible leaves. After some unfortunate experiences like that, my general rule of thumb now is to go way further than I think I should. So, I strip and I strip. But am I going too far? When should I stop? Or should I just say “no”?
I have been experimenting regularly for months now with the gorgeous baby artichokes in the markets. I think I’ve finally conquered them.

Artichauts à la Barigoule with fava beans and peas

Artichauts à la Barigoule is a classic entrée, or first course, in France. But personally, I figure, after going to all that work, peeling, trimming, rubbing, sautéing and simmering, I’m happy to make this the main event for a lunch. Just add some chewy bread from Farinoman Fou or your favourite boulanger and maybe a bit of cheese to follow. On the other hand, this dish can easily be prepared a day in advance and re-warmed just before serving.


RECIPE OF THE WEEK: ARTICHAUTS À LA BARIGOULE
Choose a lovely bouquet of baby artichokes, firm and tight. Here, they are usually sold in bunches of 5-6, or choose 12 tiny ones. The violet ones are particularly appealing.
Squeeze half a lemon into a medium bowl, then add enough cold water to hold the trimmed artichokes. The lemon helps to keep them from turning dark.

Trim the stem of the artichoke, but leave a few centimetres, because it makes for a beautiful presentation. Peel the stems down to the tender interior. Then start to peel the outer leaves off the bulb, and peel and peel, until you arrive at the light green, tender interior. Then cut off the top 1/3.  As you trim and cut, rub the artichoke with what’s left of the lemon half. Trim around the base of the artichoke to make it smooth-ish. Cut them in half, lengthwise, or in quarters if they are larger. If there is any fuzzy choke inside, scoop it out, but that is not usually a problem with smaller artichokes. As soon as each artichoke is cut, drop it into the acidulated water.
Chop one hefty slice of bacon into bits (lardons) and brown them in a saucepan with high sides that will eventually hold all of the ingredients. Meanwhile, chop an onion and add it to the pan. Then chop a big carrot and add it as well. Then one or two cloves of garlic, chopped. Add a healthy sprig of thyme (or a sprinkling of herbes de provence) and a bay leaf.

Drain the artichokes and add them. Toss and brown them a bit if you wish (not necessary – it just makes for a slightly different texture in the end). Then splash in some wine, let it bubble a bit, then add some chicken broth (or water) to just cover the ingredients. When it comes to a boil, reduce the heat, cover the pot and let it simmer for ten to twenty minutes, depending on the size of the artichokes. Remove the cover, stir, and let the liquid boil down until you are left with a deliciously saucy consistency – juicy but not soupy. Prick an artichoke with a knife to be sure it is tender. 

Pick out the sprigs of thyme and bay leaf. Scoop the mixture into wide soup bowls. You can serve it hot or warm. Be sure each bowl contains some of the juices. If you’re feeling extravagant, drizzle some gorgeous extra-virgin olive oil on and sprinkle with some fleur de sel and pepper. Garnish with a fresh sprig of thyme. Serve with a spoon and fork.

Three stages of fava beans


ELABORATIONS AND VARIATIONS:
You can eliminate the bacon entirely and it will still be delicious.
You can also add fava beans and freshly shelled peas, making it a real celebration of spring. This is my favourite version and it is actually possible to do here in Provence, as artichokes, favas and peas come into the market together (as opposed to home, where they come from weird parts of the world at strange times of the year).
Preparing fava beans is another labour of love. But it’s worth it. And it’s another one of those vegetables that yields very little after all the prep. It’s a two-step process. First you shell the fava beans. Simmer the beans in a little just-boiling water for about a minute to soften them a bit and loosen the skin. Drain and rinse them under cold water. Then with your fingernail, cut an opening in the top of each bean and squirt the bright green interior out onto a plate. Discard the skins.
As for the peas, you just need to shell them. Add both the shelled fava beans and the shelled peas around five minutes before the barigoule is ready.


FRENCH CONVENIENCES:
It’s hard to get around the fact that there are certain ingredients that just take time and effort to prepare. However, it is also good to know that in France, the markets and shops are full of items already prepared and ready to go. For example:
-Beets, already boiled and peeled, or sometimes even roasted over a wood fire.
-Chickpeas, boiled and available at the market stalls by the cupful.
-Lardons, or bacon bits, already chopped up in a package. Or better yet, a good butcher will do it for you on the spot.
-Quails wrapped and tied prettily in thin strips of bacon.
-The best spit-roasted chicken you will ever eat.
-Same goes for the ‘jambonneau’, a succulent piece of pork.
-Roasted potatoes with the chicken, cooked in the chicken drippings!
-Delicious and potent aioli (garlic mayonaise), freshly prepared by the traiteur.
-A good traiteur offers a vast array of prepared foods, from delicate quenelles to meats in sauces, to vegetable gratins to salads. French people have their favourite traiteur and are not shy about indulging in such conveniences.
-Need I mention the cakes and desserts available at patisseries??




Small artichokes left whole are also very attractive












Bread at Le Farinoman Fou



Farinoman Fou hard at work


Entrance to Le Farinoman Fou
A la prochaine,
Andrea

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