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myMEGusta

Named for things that please me (“me gusta” in Spanish) and rhymes with balabusta (Yiddish for “good homemaker”).

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

Artie the Artichoke

How did a vegetable go from being a favorite food in ancient Rome to being the mascot of a college in Scottsdale, Arizona?

It’s a long and circuitous tale, but the simple answer goes back to the early 1970s (Boomers: Remember those days of college protests?).  The student body became aggrieved at the administration’s refusal yield to their demands in several budgetary areas. In protest, when they were fully empowered to pick a mascot, chose a funny looking vegetable. Go to http://www.gochokes.com/ if you don’t believe this.

Never having tasted an artichoke until I arrived in France many years ago, I was immediately smitten, particularly when I realized how easy they are to prepare (if you have the right shears and a good steamer), and how much fun to eat.

Artichokes Growing in Vietnam

Artichokes are native to the Mediterranean, and most of the world’s crop is still grown in Europe. Italy leads in production, but they are cultivated in warm climates all over the planet, including in the mountains of Vietnam where I was surprised to see them. The vast majority of artichokes consumed in the United States come from Castroville (“The Artichoke Center of the World”, if you ignore the rest of the world) in coastal Monterey County, California.

Terrace Farming, Dalat Vietnam

The plant itself is a thistle, a relative to the pesky weeds that have pretty purple flowers but painful protective needles.

Artichokes can be simply trimmed and steamed, then eaten one leaf at a time, dipping in vinaigrette or mayonnaise, taking a break to trim out the fuzzy ‘choke’ in the center then eating the heart. Or, the cooked artichoke’s fuzz can be eliminated in the kitchen, and the whole thing stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs, then baked (a little more decadent).

Baby artichokes do not require as much trimming. One personal favorite dish in Roman cuisine is “carciofa alla guida”, baby artichokes in the Jewish style, a specialty of the Trastevere neighborhood. These are simply baby artichokes fried in olive oil. Just delicious, and they can also be found at Fiorello’s in New York City.

Jarred, marinated baby artichokes are always there for the lazier artichoke lover who wants nice addition to antipasto.

As for Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, this vegetable tastes vaguely of artichoke, but it is not even remotely related.

Jerusalem Artichokes, aka Sunchokes

Native to North America, this is a type of sunflower which produces tubers at its roots, and can turn into an invasive weed, so home gardeners, beware!

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Breaking the Code on the “Soft Shell” Oxymoron

Soft shell lobsters? Soft shell clams?  Soft shell crabs?

The subject is totally confusing, and the term, “soft shell”, has a totally different meaning in each tasty case, all of which are currently in season.

As readers may recall from a blog on crabs last fall (Everyone Deserves Their Crabby Moment, November 21, 2011), soft shell crabs have slipped out of their hard, protective shells in order to grow larger, at which point the shell re-calcifies to rock hardness. It is possible to find these treats in the wild, but difficult, since the animal, very vulnerable to predators, hides away in a sheltered spot, trying to keep invisible until the shell has re-formed.

Deep Fried Soft Shell Crab

Today, commercial crabbers take some of the crabs from their regular catch and keep them alive and healthy while awaiting the magic moment in the dark new moon (no moon, in other words) when they will naturally shed, have nowhere to hide, and then be carefully packed to go to market. The shell should be paper thin, and the little beast is completely edible (less the gills and the eyes/head clipped off when cleaning).

Those of us who live on the East Coast can find the crabs still alive in good fish markets; even the best shops in the rest of the country rarely have them still kicking.  Like any seafood, soft shell crabs are at their peak of flavor if only seconds elapse between being cleaned (a euphemism for killed) seconds before hitting the pan. The blue crab is top of mind for this dish in the United States, but other varieties are used in other places, such as Japan and Venice, Italy.

My first experience with these wonderful treats was many years ago in Baltimore in the heart of blue crab country. We visited a huge market on the waterfront, and my hosts were raving about these things, which sounded totally bizarre to my naïve ears, and looked even worse: sizzling deep fried sea monsters slapped between two slices of wonder bread.  Always the intrepid eater, I took a bite and was in heaven. The sweet delicious flavor of the crab burst out of the super crispy, yet chewable shell, hot and a little messy. I probably had a second one.

Steamed Lobsters All Look Alike, Soft or Hard Shelled

So, do lobsters molt, too? Yes! And have clever lobstermen created the same system for their related crustacean catch?

Nope.  Soft shell lobsters should probably be called “sorta soft shell” because these shells are most definitely not edible. But they are lightweight and easy to crack open, their meat being extra sweet, and considered a real delicacy. Because of their fragile shells, they don’t ship as well, and so have traditionally been most common in shops and restaurants areas close to the sea, although this is changing with modern shipping techniques and consumer demand elsewhere.

And soft shell clams are another story entirely. They are a totally different species from the hard shell clam types (also known as quahogs, littlenecks, cherrystones, as well as manila clams, razor clams and giant clams which are all different).

Soft Shell Clam on the Right

The soft shell clam is also known as a steamer, and is known for its succulent belly, wonderful steamed, dipped in butter, or deep fried. A real staple in New England, these are the clams traditionally used in clam bakes, although some chefs and consumers are substituting hard shell clams (usually littlenecks) for this purpose.

The delicious quahog family is a story for another day.

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