Echoes and Mementos

Thoughts and pictures about cooking, eating, reading, writing, and living.

Tag: lemon

Artichokes Part One: Food?

Have you ever seen a purple flower and, feeling chancy, eaten it? The first person to ever eat an artichoke did. The artichoke (pictured above) little resembles food. To an unknowing forager, the artichoke’s bulb would as likely contain food as a tree trunk or a cloud. But tap that maple trunk and you have syrup, and stand under that raincloud and you have water.

Then, when the forager was set on eating the inedible flower, he or she has to get past the plant’s natural defenses; its petals taper to a spear tip. When I was harvesting artichokes in Emilia-Romagna, the spear tips often slipped through my gloves and into my skin. A quick prick–no, a puncture–and long after you’ve recoiled the tips stays with you, sending shivers down your arm, as if you’ve been sunburned or taken too much Advil. The shivers keep you up at night. Wine is the cure.

 In June 2010, I was charged with harvesting a crop of artichokes. Unlike the forager, I knew about the choke inside. Here’s how the harvest goes. You walk to the flowers with a bucket and a scissors, along the tips of grape trellises, in the shade of apricot trees, past a few rusty shotgun shells, and to the artichoke field that opens where the vineyard ends. Here, the mountain curves back on itself. You see across the valley: squares of vineyard, crumbling villas on the high ridge, green everywhere, a sun somewhere, a farmer stalking in the nearest vineyard. He waves hello.

I snipped the bulbs from their stems. Mindful of the spear tips, I went from plant to plant, taking the last of the summer’s artichoke crop. I watched the farmer tend his vines across the valley. Shortly, the owner of the farm where I was staying came out and worked on the far artichoke rows. He was shirtless. His toddler son ran screaming among the plants. I worked slowly, drinking in the view, the breeze, and even the jab of a spear tip, a happy reminder of being alive.

Second, when the artichoke has been snipped, the bulb must be reduced to a heart. The unknowing forager must have stumbled here. (Did he or she first try to eat the outer leaves, or to chew and swallow the raw stem?) To get to the edible part, strip away the petals (more spearing) until you reach oily leaves that are mostly yellow. Cut off the yellow tip. Scrape out the choke.

Third, you need to rub the hearts with lemon. Acid prevents them from browning. The forager probably had no lemon (or vinegar), but if he or she ate them raw, as is probable, the first eaten artichokes were likely so fresh they were not yet brown. In parts of Italy, Italians slice artichokes thinly and eat them raw dipped in olive oil. We cooked ours. Here are some of the June 2010 artichokes staying fresh in a lemony bath while we finished prepping the others:

Fourth, cook the artichoke. We cooked ours over a wood fire. Sticks turned to ash in the flames (we used ashes to wash dishes), and embers were still glowing in the pre-dawn the next morning. Early, we drove the cauldron to a small food processor in Brisighella, the nearby town, and churned the artichokes into a coarse paste. For the next three weeks, we put it on toast. But, as he or she lacked a lemon, the unknowing forager was likely also short on a neighborhood food processor. Was that raw, scratchy first artichoke worth the spearing, the wrestling from the stem, and the stripping of leaves? As a knowing harvester in 2010 and a knowing eater in 2012, I hope it was.

The Limoncello Will Be Ready in 40 Days

Thank you, algebra, for allowing me to calculate how much sugar water I needed to make a limoncello of 40% alcohol. In my short life I have used algebra a few times, probably once for every year I spent learning it in the classroom.

Better than the subject is the word: “algebra.” It comes to English from Arabic, as does “alcohol,” for the Arabs were some of the world’s first number munchers and distillers of high-proof spirits. Limoncello, the liqueur, comes to my kitchen from Italy.

For 40 or so days the rinds of these lemons have steeped in grain alcohol:

Here’s what the mixture looked like at first:

And after 40 days and an addition:

I added three cups of sugar water (1 part sugar, 2 parts water) to the 750ml of 151 proof grain alcohol. The result, after another 40 day rest, will be a lemony liqueur of about 39% or 40% alcohol. Another result: people drinking the limoncello, me among them, we having just got back from the beach, now sitting on the patio, the sun touching a roof across the street, the distillate of summer cold and like syrup in my glass.

Kiss-Winter-Goodbye Sangria

Perhaps you are familiar with the rain dance. According to legend, some Native American tribes would, when their cornfields were thirsty for water, don tribal masks and vestments and dance wildly. The hope was to invoke the presence responsible for rain and, for the price of a dance, buy a watery drink for the parched fields. Why would a similar dance fail in 2012? From this half-baked thinking follows my strong belief that we can chase the winter by swilling summer drinks and pitchers of sangria in March.

The winter elements of this sangria are cold-weather fruits (apple, pear), a few fingers of brandy (for inner warmth against the frost), a shade of vanilla, and a half-teaspoon of cinnamon. Here we use the shock of cinnamon to stand in for sugar or simple syrup. The absence of sugar makes this an unsexy sangria, and thus a perfect drink for 40- and 50-degree weather. In the same modest spirit, we can use a cheap bottle of wine; the brandy alters the drink’s personality, making the purchase of good wine a bad decision. (For this reason restaurants have a sky-high profit margin on sangria). The hint of warm weather, the brightness with which the sangria summons spring, comes from, what else, citrus.

Makes 4-6 drinks

1                apple

1                pear

⅓               lemon

1 bottle      cheap Spanish red wine (I used Tempranillo)

¼ cup        brandy

½ tsp          ground cinnamon

A few drops of vanilla extract

1 cup         club soda (refrigerated)

1) Core the apple and pear. Discard the cores. Chop the pear into small pieces. When for sangria I cut a pear into crescents, the fruit becomes strange after soaking in the wine, so chop those white wedges to bits. (Other fruits do better; check back in 3 months.) Chop the apple as you did the pear, but leaving a few slices large if you wish. Put the chopped fruit into a large pitcher.

2) Cut the lemon-third into wedges. Remove the seeds. Over the pitcher, squeeze each lemon wedge into submission, then toss the juiceless lemons onto the chopped fruit.

3) Pour the wine and brandy into the pitcher. Add cinnamon. Pour in a whisper of vanilla extract. Stir well. For the night, let the pitcher sleep in the back of your fridge.

4) The next afternoon or night, add the cold club soda, stir, and drink the pitcher with a friend or two.

Sicilian Orange Salad

When the sun showed last week, and when I was trying to use ten sad skinless lemons leftover from limoncello, I made a summer staple of mine: Sicilian orange salad. Lemons, oranges, and blood oranges–the colors are too ecstatic for winter, the flavors too florid. But let us defer the matter of seasonality to logic.

Consider Sicily. The island is a heartbeat away from kissing Africa. Surely, given this closeness, and given the climate of Sicily in the summer, so hot that many farmers wait until nightfall and tend their fields wearing headlamps, we should be little surprised if lemons and February are good friends in this distant land. Consider citrus. Even in the summer we northerners bring in oranges from afar, so why not eat the fruits in February?

This salad will wake you up like a coffee. I recommend experimenting with the recipe. For a less-sour salad, use one lemon. Try grating a patch of its rind and adding the zest before the final toss. If you’ve made limoncello and have only naked lemons, zest the blood orange instead. Here we are throwing things together and not calculating. Sliver all of the mint, or for more varied bites keep some of the leaves away from your knife.

Freeze the salad for five minutes before serving. Serve with foods of personality: barbecued ribs, garlicky pasta, whatever nimble beer you have on hand, or all of the above. But often I eat the salad alone, standing in the kitchen, in the afternoon, in the winter or the summer, straight out of the chilled bowl, lemon spirits and the sun mere excuses.

Serves 2 as a snack, 4 as a side

2             oranges

2             small lemons

1             blood orange

1/5         medium red onion (one ounce), cut into slivers

3             springs mint leaves (some 25 leaves), half slivered, half left whole

1 tbsp      olive oil

freshly ground pepper

pinch of salt

1) With a paring knife, cut the rind and white pith from the first orange. Discard the rind and pith. With your knife perpendicular to the lines between the orange segments (the orange’s poles at east and west), slice the sphere into thin rounds, removing seeds from rounds that have them. Put rounds into a large bowl. With a paper towel, wipe juice that has pooled on the cutting board.

2) Repeat for other orange. Repeat for lemons and blood orange.

3) Add red onions, mint, and olive oil. Toss delicately.

4) Add 5-8 grindings of pepper and next-to-no salt. Toss delicately.

5) Cover and put in freezer for 4 or 5 minutes. Take out. Eat.

The Limoncello Will Be Ready in 80 Days

Fat lemons dangle from most tree branches in Sorrento. If you have traveled there, or anywhere else in southern Italy, or to an ambitious Italian American restaurant, or to your liquor store, chances are you’ve sipped limoncello. If you haven’t, here’s a primer: Limoncello is what, when they’re lucky, those fat lemons become.

In places like Sorrento, the liqueur comes thick in a freezing glass. A sip after dinner, the summer sun now down, and the day’s heat seems a distant memory. Or so I recall the experience from February.

Actually, February is the perfect time to think limoncello. Today, February 14, I stored a jar of grain alcohol and lemon peels in the back of a kitchen cabinet. In 40 days, I will dissolve sugar water into the mixture. It will sit for 40 more days, and then, just before Memorial Weekend, the first weekend at the beach, the liqueur will become limoncello, and I can sip the sour spirit from a freezing glass after days of sun and grill smoke.

Fennel Salad with Apple + Black Pepper

Pepper brings this winter salad to life; I twisted my grinder 15 times. That’s probably too many, and you will need less of the spice should you omit the parsley. Use good olive oil. Eat with something funky, like Chinese.

Serves 2

1        Fennel bulb

2/3   Apple, cut into matchsticks or thin wedges

3       Sprigs parsley, leaves only, roughly chopped (optional)

Pinch of salt

2       Tablespoons olive oil

1/4   Lemon

Black pepper

1) Remove the fennel bulb’s stalks and fibrous base. Half the bulb lengthwise from top to bottom. Cut each of the halves crosswise into thin, c-shaped ribbons. Put these into a large bowl.

2) Add apple, parsley, salt, and olive oil. Toss.

3) Squeeze lemon over the bowl. Toss.

4) Grate pepper over the salad. Toss well. Taste. If desired, add more pepper and toss again. Eat.