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« Porcini, Pork & Peppers Pasta | Main | Braised Oyster Mushrooms »

Artichoke Hearts Provençal

Artichoke Hearts Provençal
  

About ten years ago I developed this dish in response to the presence of big cheap artichokes in the supermarket produce section. This was inspired by a fleeting moment watching Jacques Pepin doing something with artichoke hearts earlier in the week on his show "Cooking with Claudine" but when I googled I couldn't find any artichoke recipes from Pepin on the web. I remembered Jacques babbling away to his daughter Claudine about how wonderful artichokes are while absentmindedly prepping the little beasts, and then he put them in salted water to simmer. I must have turned it off at that point, or been distracted, so from there I was on my own. But how can you go wrong with garlic, tomatoes, onions and basil? The fennel was included because I had some in the house, but now I wouldn't consider making this without it: the combination of artichokes, fennel and ham, in a provençal-style sauce, is more or less perfect. Okay, I'll admit: this little dish is a lot of work due to the prep of the artichokes - but whenever I can get big, reasonably priced artichokes I do it, because it's wildly popular every time.

4 artichokes, large
lemon juice
1 yellow onion, medium, sliced vertically into little crescents.
4 cloves garlic, sliced, roughly chopped
2 tomatoes, peeled, seeded, roughly chopped, with juice
1 T tomato paste
olive oil
4 T basil, minced
1/2 C fennel bulb, thinly sliced
12 oil-cured black olives, pitted, roughly chopped
4 thin slices cured ham, cut in strips
2 drops Liquid Smoke
1 tsp balsamic vinegar
salt, hot sauce to taste

With a sharp knife, cut off end of artichoke stem. Cut top 2/3 of artichoke leaves off. With knife, trim away green fibrous leaves from bottom. Peel fibrous outer skin from stem. Leave the "choke" in place - it will be much easier removed after cooking. As you work, keep the finished pieces submerged in lemon-juiced water, to keep them from turning black.

Simmer the artichoke bottoms until tender in salted water, drain and set aside. When cool enough to handle, scrape out and discard the "choke" with a spoon. Quarter bottoms vertically, or, if they are very large, cut them in sixths. Set aside.

Sauté onions slowly in olive oil, about 5 minutes. Add basil when onions start to soften and cook a couple more minutes. When onions are almost tender and turning translucent, add garlic, tomatoes, tomato paste, fennel and ham. Sauté another minute or two. (Ideally the fennel will retain a little crunch when the dish is served.) Turn off heat, add vinegar, Liquid Smoke and olives. Mix well. Check and correct seasoning.

Serve at room temperature. Either make a bed of the tomato/onion mixture and lay the artichoke pieces over it, or, as in the picture, give each artichoke piece a little blanket of the sauce. Garnish with basil leaves. This dish works as an appetizer, with French bread rounds and a pepper mill at hand, and also particularly well as a side accompaniment to a plain delicately-flavored grilled fish like halibut, swordfish, bass or some large fresh diver scallops. 

Notes:

1. If possible buy artichokes that still have a long section of stem...this part is as good as the heart, when peeled, and the shape of the pieces is more interesting than it would be if you just use the button-shaped heart.

2. I've never liked canned artichoke hearts in any preparation so I've never tried this with them, even though it would be a lot less work. Let me know what happens if you do try them.

3. This is best if made a day ahead, but it's still mighty good if consumed immediately.

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