Monday, February 21, 2011

Artichokes, Asparagus and French Fries

The mind is a curious place; well my mind is to me anyway. I awoke one bright clear morning and thought, ‘artichokes’! I must write about these mysterious culinary delights which are challenging, to say the least, to many people. This instigated a discussion in my head about another finger food column. This is a time of year when we do tend to eat more with our hands than usual, at least here in the Western world. I make that distinction because I just watched an episode where Chef Michael Smith was in Jordan, where a good bit of food is eaten with one’s hands, as it is in other parts of the world as well. Why not explore a few of the foods that can certainly be enjoyed using our fingers rather than the knife and fork?

Artichokes, whose use as a food originated most likely in Northern Africa, is a cousin of the Thistle, a trait easy to surmise once you discover the ‘choke’. This vegetable must be eaten by hand. The leaves are peeled gently from the main bulb gently but firmly and then the flesh is scraped off with your teeth. This is one food that requires either one on one training or a detailed ‘how to’ video to be able to eat it successfully. I maintain that it is well worth the trouble though. It has a wonderful sweet earthy flavor which is great with Hollandaise sauce or melted lemon butter when served hot; it also tastes delicious with mayonnaise laced with curry or garlic or a fragrant vinaigrette when served cold. The heart, which is identical in taste to the leaves is the real meat of the flower bud and the ultimate reward after the attenuated time required to reach it. Some less than patient diners dive right into the heart bypassing the delectable petals altogether. This is akin to only eating the tail of a lobster. Each to his own. No matter what your decision, artichokes are very versatile and are a great addition to many meals as either a main
vegetable or served as a starter.

Asparagus, a wonderful vegetable from the Lily family, comes to us from Eurasia and is grown all over the world. This is another food which according to proper etiquette is correctly eaten by hand, whether it is served hot or cold. The same accompaniments used for artichokes work very nicely with asparagus too. The spears are best when steamed or grilled. They can be boiled, but then so can anything. Much of the flavor and nutrients are lost in that process. Although not often served at formal dinners, eating this vegetable with your hands is proper at any occasion anywhere in the world.

French fried potatoes are an all time finger food favorite. These tuberous vegetables have their origins in Peru. What we eat today descends from a subspecies from Chile. The Sweet Potato and the Yam are also immensely popular additions to this finger food family. While the Sweet Potato originated in equatorial South America, it is distantly related to the potato. However, the Yam comes to us from Africa and is no relation to either plant at all, even though similar looking and tasting. Cut into long rectangular spears, these nutritious vegetables are usually denatured by deep fat frying, rendering them less wholesome but addictively delicious. No matter how they are cooked or served, they are customarily eaten with a fork and knife; however, I think they somehow seem to taste better when eaten by hand.

The rule of thumb for eating certain foods with your hands is usually dictated by a lack of cutlery with which to eat a particular item. No knife, fork or spoon is a good indication that using your fingers is positively appropriate. No one is expected to eat a sandwich or a Burrito with utensils, nor olives, nor nuts nor most picnic foods. After all, fried chicken and barbecued ribs simply taste better when eaten by hand. I’m not exactly sure how the various lists were assembled as to what is eaten by hand and what with a fork. Suffice it to say, that when in doubt, begin with a fork and knife and then follow your host’s lead. At picnics, my vote is forks for salads only. At formal dinners, don’t taunt your guests with questionable foods - do I or don’t I eat this with a fork?

This brings me back to artichokes. Of course, here’s a food you start eating with your hands and finish up using a fork and knife. It may in fact be unique in that regard. Don’t let them scare you off though. Find a pal who enjoys them and ask them for a lesson. They’re fun, delicious and nutritious. And, oh yes, they’re a food that deserves some respect. Making the mistake of eating the choke itself will teach you that lesson in a big hurry. In my book, finger food rules......as often as possible!