Eating Thistles

Photo: The Big ThistleCardoons and artichokes are every bit as admirable as their strictly-for-visual-admiration wild growing thistle cousins. But as any avid eater should know, the aforementioned relatives are terrific dining companions as well as being attractive plants. Sure, I love the silvery magnificence of a shapely cardoon leaf accenting the garden border, but if I can admire its beauty and then eat it as well isn’t that just so much the better?Digital illustration from a photo: Antique Artichoke

And artichokes, well, we all know those are as worthy of battling past their thorny armor as it was ever worth storming a castle’s battlements and portcullises to get to the treasury inside.Digital illustration from a photo: Artichoke Arrangement

The wonderful earthiness of the artichoke is an outstanding companion to the similarly strong-yet-subtle virtues of asparagus, mushrooms or root vegetables. All of these, in turn, play nicely with the denser, meatier varieties of fish—roasted monkfish or grilled salmon, for example—or a roast or stew of wild game, if one has access to, say, boar or venison. Or, if meat or fish is simply not right for the moment, some boiled, steamed or poached eggs.

How about this for a tasty Collage of Earthy Vegetables:

Blanch some cleaned asparagus, small to medium-sized artichokes, halved and trimmed, and russet potatoes, skin on and cut into modest wedges. When they’re all blanched, stem and clean some Portobello mushrooms, toss everything with a little avocado oil, kosher salt & cracked black pepper, and grill or roast until tender.

Serve with any or all of the following as a finger food, small-plate meal or as a side to the main entree (fish or meat or eggs):

Toasted hazelnuts, small wedges of Manchego or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, brown butter Hollandaise, and/or rosemary sherried green olives.

This compilation seems to me almost a vegetable representation of terroir. At the least, it’s very down to earth!

Foodie Tuesday: Pretty as a Picture

photoThere’s an almost unbreakable rule when it comes to sensory perception and food: if it looks bad, it’ll taste bad. People will eat the most strange-smelling stuff–witness durian, any number of aged cheeses, fermented foods, and a large number of culture-specific items from around the world that, to anyone not either genetically inclined to be attracted to it or else remarkably brave and adventuresome, will yell at the lizard brainPOISON! POISON!’ The emetic reflex is, indeed a powerful thing when triggered by smells, but somehow a vast quantity of people have not only overcome that response but embraced the non-toxic results of the experiment. But things that look unpleasant are often a much harder sell. We humans respond intensely to appearances.

That’s not to say that we won’t eat things that look fairly nasty. The first person who looked at a monkfish probably didn’t say to himself, ‘gosh, that looks inviting,’ so much as something like ‘good thing I’m starving here!’ and the famously slimy strands of nattō (compounded, I’m told on good authority, by a perfume that’s fully its equal for off-putting qualities) were unlikely the source of its original appeal. In our household, the favorite rude comment if food has a notably unpalatable appearance is, ‘are ya gonna eat that or did ya?’–to which my response is generally to spoon up a big bite of it, because I’m almost always the one who eats Weird Things and I’m also a petulant show-off.

But for the most part, looks are terribly important, not only because in the rawest sense they can mean the difference between safe and unsafe eating but also because ultimately, we like food to stimulate our pleasure centers. So it’s not the worst rule of thumb to look around, when seeking ingredients and recipes, for things that have the inherent beauty we will respond to most happily, and that can sustain their loveliness throughout the prep and presentation arrangements.

Sometimes, of course, the best rule of thumb in the event is to simply eat the food as we found it, because if it looks pretty to start with it probably doesn’t need any plastic surgery from us ordinary non-chef mortals. See it, eat it. Pretty good recipe, pretty often.

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