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Monday, September 26, 2022
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    Artichokes, asparagus team up

    Ann Maloney

    THE WASHINGTON POST – One of my favourite lines in the movie All About Eve comes when a piqued Bette Davis sarcastically interrupts her lover and her nemesis with the quip: “Remind me to tell you about the time I looked into the heart of an artichoke.”

    In the spring, when piles of fresh artichokes show up at the grocery store, I always think of her sharp-as-a-chef’s-knife delivery and it makes me smile.

    It’s during spring that I set aside a day for the time-consuming task of stuffing the vegetables. My husband doesn’t care much for the meaty heart, so when I reach it, I often get it all to myself.

    I like the texture and the flavour of the earthy-tasting heart, so I often use it in meatless dishes or in ones where meat is not the star, like in this skillet fresh pasta with artichokes, asparagus and lemon-mint ricotta from Milk Street, which has just a touch of pancetta.

    So, how do you look into the heart of an artichoke? It’s not easy. The vegetable, a relative of the thistle, features leathery, thorny green leaves or petals attached to a round base. The edible parts are the meaty bits at the base of the leaves and, of course, the heart. To get to it, you have to trim the rough stem, peel away the leaves and remove the hairy choke. It’s a process.

    For weeknight meals year-round, I turn to canned hearts. Besides being far easier to get to, the commercially packaged ones are the less costly choice.

    The heart can be jarred or canned in a variety of ways. If the container is labelled artichoke “bottoms”, it is probably filled with the disc-shaped round bases. More commonly, however, the packages are labelled “hearts” and contain that base but with tender leaves attached.

    Fresh pasta with artichokes, asparagus and lemon-mint ricotta. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

    Some are small whole hearts; others are larger ones that have been quartered or cut into smaller wedges.

    I prefer to buy the hearts whole, because I find the texture a little firmer. The hearts may be soaking in a variety of liquids, often an herby marinade, plain olive oil or a vinegar and water brine.

    The marinated variety often is flavourful and ready to be eaten on an antipasti salad or snack board, or atop baguette slices with a smear of burrata for a quick bruschetta topping.

    You may, however, prefer to add your own seasoning. If so, go for the vinegar-brined ones.

    Pull off a leaf or two and taste them. If they have an off flavour – too acidic or salty – gently rinse the artichokes with cool water. That taste also can reveal whether the outer leaves are tough or stringy. If so, I pull off a leaf or two and discard them to get to the more tender leaves inside. (If you are blitzing them in a food processor for a dip, this is less important).

    One thing to watch is that the jarred and canned variety can be high in sodium, so consider buying the hearts frozen if that is a concern for you. They may still have salt added, so read the label. If you’re in a hurry, thaw them in a bowl in the microwave and drain them before using. I find the frozen ones a little softer and mushier, so they are better for dishes made in a food processor.

    I almost always have these little gems in my pantry. That way, in a pinch, I can toss them into salads, pasta dishes, dips or stews to be eaten in the dead of summer or maybe some snowy night, in front of the fire.

    FRESH PASTA WITH ARTICHOKES, ASPARAGUS AND LEMON-MINT RICOTTA

    Artichoke hearts are at the centre of this company’s-coming dish. The recipe calls for store-bought fresh pasta. Look for asparagus spears about as thin as a pencil, so they will cook to crisp-tender. “Don’t forget to cover the skillet after adding the pasta. The lid keeps the heat in the pan so the ingredients cook through properly and without excessive evaporation,” Christopher Kimball wrote in his Milk Street cookbook, The World in a Skillet.

    INGREDIENTS

    For the ricotta

    – Half cup fresh whole milk ricotta
    – Half cup lightly packed fresh mint, finely chopped
    – Two teaspoons finely grated lemon zest plus one tablespoon lemon juice
    – Two tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
    – Fine salt
    – Freshly ground black pepper

    For the pasta

    – One tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
    – Four ounces diced pancetta
    – Two medium shallots, halved and thinly sliced
    – Three cups water, plus more as needed
    – One package fresh pasta, such as linguine or fettuccine
    – One can quartered artichoke hearts, drained
    – One pound asparagus, trimmed and cut into one-inch pieces on the diagonal
    – Two tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into two pieces
    – Two ounces pecorino Romano cheese, finely grated, divided
    – Fine salt
    – Freshly ground black pepper

    DIRECTIONS

    In a small bowl, stir together the ricotta, mint, lemon zest and juice and two tablespoons of oil.

    Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir to combine. If not using right away, cover and refrigerate.

    In a 12-inch non-stick skillet over medium heat, heat the one tablespoon of oil until shimmering. Add the pancetta and cook, stirring, until it crisps, three to five minutes. Add the shallots and cook, stirring, until softened, about two minutes. Stir in the water, raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Add the pasta, stirring to separate the noodles. Cover and boil, stirring occasionally, until the pasta is just shy of al dente, about three minutes.

    Stir in the artichoke hearts, then scatter the asparagus over the top. Cover and cook without stirring, until the asparagus is tender-crisp and the pasta is al dente, two to three minutes.

    Remove from the heat, add the butter and half of the pecorino, then toss until combined and the butter has melted.

    Add more water, one tablespoon at a time, as needed, so the sauce clings lightly to the pasta.

    Taste, and season with salt and pepper as desired.

    Divide among bowls, and serve with the ricotta mixture spooned on top or on the side, and with the remaining pecorino on the side.

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