Simple Pleasures.

Simple Pleasures.
Irish soda bread on its way up North with Noah.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Forget the old "Boil and Butter"...Get Those Artichokes on the Grill!

Just got back from my extended family's annual Lake George camping trip. If you know me just a little, you know that this excursion is a pretty kooky one, about which I've written, joked, grimaced, and reminisced relatively often. If you don't know me too well, basically imagine 11-15 Jerseyites (and ex-Jerseyites plus one pure-blood westerner) on a 1/2-mile long island in the middle of an Adirondack lake, with a couple of outhouses, a stone firepit, a handful of tents, and copious amounts of Deep Woods Off, sunblock, bacon and vodka---and you've basically got a picture of what life is like during the two family weeks we've spent there each summer over the past 52 years.

Now, up at the Lake, division of labor is serious business. My brother John is the wood, fire and fishing guy. My sister-in-law Julie is the only one kind enough to pay attention to the gaggle of mud-covered juveniles running wild around us. My sister Fred, our group's very own untouchable, cleans the outhouse. My parents worry about the weather and make cocktails. The kids haul buckets of water from the lake and chop kindling. And I have, over the years, taken over the role from my mom of grocery shopper (via boat) and cook. All of this makes for a pretty darned efficient and fight-free environment. Though I suspect we'd each be up sh&*t's creek if left on the island to survive on our own.

Anyway, people are always very curious about how I cook for 14 odd people for 14 days without the benefit of electricity or running water. More often than not, my friends muse about the gourmet feasts I must be able to innovate with nothing but an open fire and the great outdoors to inspire me. And my answer is the same: Food up at he Lake is basically calories. It provides energy so we can do all the other crap that needs to get done, like hauling wood, running up Black Mountain every morning, and chasing rattle snakes off the campsite.

Sure, my siblings and I went through a period where we tried to prove our parents wrong. We hauled up special spices and did our best Bobby Flay impressions. But after hours spent hovering over misbehaving flames, washing too many pots, and cowering in front of singed disasters (my pitch-black-but-raw country pork ribs come to mind), we've all arrived back at that sensible place that tells us to stick with what's easy, fast, and tasty. That means a pretty predictable rotation of steak, burgers, spaghetti, tacos, and iceberg lettuce salads.

There have been some notable additions over the years, however...dishes where the finished product exceeds the sum of its very few parts and still manages to get us out from under the kitchen tarp in a jiff. Case in point: My brother John's recipe for grilled artichokes, which he imported to the island two summers ago. I swear to you, once I tasted artichokes from the grill, I haven't once considered returning to my boiling ways and never even entertain the idea of dipping those delicious leaves in butter. Certainly, you can tackle this dish over an open fire like we do up at the Lake. But it's easier (and better for your complexion) if done on your tame little backyard grill. Give these a try. And let me know what you think.

John's Grilled Artichokes

Artichokes (figure on 1 per person; nice, fresh ones generally feel heavy for their size, sport tightly packed leaves, and have plump, non-shriveled stems)

Salt and Pepper
Exra Virgin Olive Oil
Fresh Squeezed Lemon Juice

Put a large cauldron of water on to boil or, if a you're a steamer-type of person, set up a steamer large enough to accomodate your artichokes.

While the water heats, prepare the artichokes. If you've never wrestled with these critters before, be brave. I'll walk you through it....the pictures here should help. First, give them a wash. Next, use a sturdy pair of scissors to clip the tips off of the bigger, visible leaves. Once the outer leaves are de-tipped, you'll have the delicate inner leaves sticking up from the center in a point. Use a sturdy knife to just whack off the whole pointy cone and discard what you've cut off. Finally, cut the bottom off the stem (if your artichokes still have theirs). This part of the artichoke, especially if it's a big artichoke, is pretty tasty, sort a continuation of the heart. Sometimes, though, they can be a little bitter. Just put them aside later if they are.

Now, once your water is boiling, drop the artichokes into the boiling water or put them in to steam for 15 minutes. While they are cooking, spray your grill with some Pam so the artichokes won't stick later and THEN heat up the grill. If you have one of those veggie grates that you can lay on top of your grill grate, go ahead and use it. No reason not to play it safe. As for how high to heat the grill? I'm not exactly picky about the setting since, as mentioned, I'm usually doing this over an eyebrow-singing fire. I'd say a medium fire is fine.

After about 15 minutes of boiling or steaming, your artichokes should be almost, but not completely, cooked. It's important not to overcook them at this point because they will fall apart on the fire. And if you undercook them, the heart may still be hard when you take them off the grill. The goal is for a knife or cooking fork to be able to pierce through the artichoke with just a little resistance.

Take your artichokes out from the cooking water and set them on a towel for a few minutes (go ahead and squeeze your lemons and wash your cooking pot while they cool. ) Now, use a sharp knife to cut each arichoke in half lengthwise. Once that's taken care of, your next job is to take out the hairy pokey stuff from the center. Here's how: Using that sharp knife, make a nice shallow smiley-face-shaped cut right along the line where the heart ends and the thistles begin (see picture. ) Then, use a melon baller, measuring spoon or plain old teasopoon to scoop out all the hairy stuff and tiny leaves above that cut line. No leaves that are too small and spiny to eat should be left.

Whew. Now that that's done, just brush the cut side of the artichokes with olive oil, and sprinkle them lovingly with salt and pepper. Lay them cut side up on the grill (close grill if you're not using an open fire) and cook for 10 minutes. Then flip them so they're cut side down and cook for another 5-10+ minutes, or until they are nice and crispy and and nut brown in spots.

Okay. Now lay these babies out on a platter. Drizzle with olive oil and lots of fresh lemon juice. Devour. Mmmmmmmmm.