Saturday, May 31, 2008

Artichoke Basics

Among the season's best peas, arugula, fava beans, and cherries, my husband discovered another Spring gem at the farmer's market this weekend: the artichoke. We've all had them canned or packed in oil--usually in "baby" form--amidst other foods, but this earthy flower deserves a plate of it's own.
This month, splurge on a few artichokes, and enjoy their meaty texture with some Lemon Mayonnaise alongside. Look for artichokes with tightly-woven leaves that feel heavy for their size. Rub the leaves together; they should squeak when you do. And pass on an artichoke with cracked, feathery tips, an indicator the vegetable is past it's prime.
Spend some time preparing the artichokes, and your guests will be rewarded with easier plucking, and--the best part--complete avoidance of that awful fuzzy choke. First, cut off the upper quarter of the vegetable. Then, using kitchen shears, slice off the tip of each leaf, rotating the artichoke until they're all trimmed. Part the smaller center leaves, and begin pulling away the purplish bits until you reach the choke. When you do, remove as much as possible with a melon baller. Continue scraping at the center until you've revealed the much-desired heart, then squeeze lemon juice into the opening to prevent browning. Flip over, and trim the stem to a 1" length.
Cook artichokes stem up in 1" of simmering water, covered, for 25-30 minutes. The water can be flavored with a smashed clove of garlic, lemon juice, or a sprig of herbs, if you like.
When done, the artichoke should be very tender, and the bottom leaves will easily separate if tugged gently. Remove from water and pat dry. Serve hot, with Lemon Mayonnaise or good-quality olive oil and a sprinkle of salt for dipping.
The artichokes can also be chilled and tucked into tomorrow's lunchbox.
Lemon Mayonnaise
For every two people, whisk together:
1/4 cup veganaise
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablespoon lemon juice
Dip each leaf into the mayonnaise, and scrape the tender flesh from the underside using your teeth. Be sure to provide a receptacle at the table for eaten leaves. When you reach the heart, eat it with a knife and fork.
There's something very retro, very glamorous, about having an artichoke--and just that--for supper. The perfect accompaniment? A classic cocktail. Don't even consider one of those abominations of intoxication: the lemon drop, the apple-tini. Keep it simple with a vodka martini, dry, with many olives.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Lavender Rice Pudding Brulee with Blueberries

As fresh and lustrous as Spring is, these perfectly warm days hurry me into the next season. The markets are filled with blueberries, and everything hangs heavy and fragrant in the still hot afternoon.

It's the cusp of Summer, and I just can't wait any longer.

Days like this require something summery, like this cooling lavender rice pudding, studded with fresh blueberries and covered in scorched sugar.

Lavender Rice Pudding Brulee with Blueberries
6 dessert or breakfast servings
The sugar topping must be caramelized just before serving; it softens on sitting. And to brulee the pudding, you'll need a torch. Skip the puny kitchen things, and just borrow or buy a decent blowtorch. They're surprisingly easy to operate, and make you feel rad like Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.

2 ½ cups non-dairy milk
1 teaspoon dried lavender
2 ½ cups cooked white rice
½ cup coconut milk or additional non-dairy milk
½ cup evaporated cane juice or sugar
generous pinch salt
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 pint blueberries, rinsed and patted dry
about ¼ cup evaporated cane juice or sugar, for brulĂ©eing
additional blueberries, for serving

In a small saucepan, heat the milk until just boiling. Remove from heat, and stir in lavender. Cover, and allow to infuse 15 minutes. Strain infused milk into a medium saucepan, pressing firmly with the back of a spoon to extract the lavender essence. Add rice, coconut milk, sugar, and salt. Bring to a simmer over medium-low heat, and cook until creamy and thick, 30-35 minutes. Go through the pudding with a wire whisk occasionally to break up any lumps of rice, and to prevent a skin from forming on top.

Remove from heat, and stir in vanilla. Divide blueberries evenly among 6 ramekins. Pour pudding over blueberries, smoothing the tops; a ½ cup measure is ideal for this. Press a sheet of plastic directly onto the surface of the puddings, and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled, at least 4 hours or overnight.

To serve, sprinkle each pudding evenly with 1 ½ teaspoons sugar. Heat the torch to medium heat, and hold the torch about one inch from the pudding. Making small circles, caramelize the sugar. It will bubble, melt, and go golden. Don’t allow the sugar to burn past a medium brown color, but do be sure it’s completely melted.

Place the ramekins on plates, and sprinkle each pudding with additional blueberries. Be sure to include spoons alongside, so your guests can enjoy a satisfying crack! as they fracture the burnt sugar topping. Serve immediately.