3.06.2010

Muted Complexity


I find artichokes to be fascinating. When prepared at their most basic, steamed with drawn butter, they are little to no work for the cook but fairly laborious for the diner. No one can figure out the ideal wine pairing for artichokes. In fact, even the origin of artichokes is unknown, though they are said to have come from North Africa. Pablo Neruda equates the appearance of the artichoke to a helmet and MFK Fisher saw the artichoke as the chosen vegetable of status seekers. 

And did you know that this vegetable is of much nutritional value because of its exhibiting aid to digestion, strengthening of the liver and gall bladder function and reduces cholesterol levels?

The most wonderful part of the artichoke, the heart, is buried deep under 87 fully formed, seemingly impenetrable and intimidating leaves that are, for the most part, inedible. Because, remember, the artichoke is a member of the thistle family. But that little heart, when you finally free it from its outwardly unlovable facade, is, well, so lovable – so sensuous, decadent, nutty, acidic, rich, subtle and an intoxicating nugget of gold to grace your palate. People practically arm wrestle with each other for one of those precious bites to dip in the warm, lemony butter.

My dad, upon his first artichoke experience, exclaimed: “It’s like a science project.” Heather noted that she almost always prefers the steamed artichokes prepared at home to those in restaurants. People put the hearts in salads, on top of pizzas, fry them, braise them, or place poached eggs over the bottoms. Suzanne Goin makes a wonderful artichoke-potato hash served along side a perfectly grilled skirt steak. 

And me – wonder of wonders:  I made a soup.

I researched quite a few recipes. One required that I steam 4 artichokes, let them cool and then scrape each leaf for its meat in addition to utilizing the hearts. Unfortunately, even I was not up to that task. I decided to use hearts only. Another recipe called for some lemon. We all know a steamed artichoke is perfect with butter and lemon. I thought I would add a squeeze of Meyer lemon at the end but the soup seemed to have enough acidity on its own. In fact, upon tasting it, my mom immediately thought she identified lemon in the soup. Another recipe suggested making a roux to thicken it up. I decided instead to use a potato. Also, at a random moment near the end, I added a dash of sherry. At one serving I garnished it with a drizzle of walnut oil, a few toasted pine nuts, and some fresh chives. Last night, however, I served it as an amuse bouche, in small, white tea cups, with a single rustic crouton, toasted in fine olive oil and sea salt.

The muted complexities of this soup intrigue and delight me. It’s smooth, rounded, bold, and pithy while also being delicate, peaceful, serene and just a touch reserved: a Zen warrior. The taste lingers on your tongue like an anticipatory pause and perfectly prepares you for your next course that could range from a simple salad to a nicely grilled steak.

This soup surprised and impressed all eight of the people who were fortunate enough to sample it.

You can read Neruda’s beautiful Ode to the Artichoke here.


Creamy Artichoke Soup


2 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp butter
1 clove garlic, smashed
1 medium onion, chopped
3 cups artichoke hearts
1 medium potato, peeled and chopped
2 ½ cups chicken stock
1 tsp sherry
Salt & pepper to taste

Heat olive oil and butter in a heavy, large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and the garlic and stir. Add the potatoes and cook for 10 minutes, stirring often. Add the artichokes, stock, salt, and pepper and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.

Using a handheld immersion blender, or in a blender in batches, puree the soup. Stir in the sherry.

Ladle the soup into serving bowls. Top each of the soups with a drizzle of walnut oil, toasted pine nuts and fresh chives, or simply, a rustic, torn crouton.

Printable Recipe

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