Way back in the last century, I spent a shift in the kitchen of a snooty French restaurant for a magazine story and learned that even the haughtiest chefs wield a can opener like a Wusthof. When an escargot order would land, a tin lid would hit the trash. (This was before recycling, of course.)
But when I went out recently to buy my first can of artichoke hearts, I found myself carefully tucking it under paper products in my hand basket. I live in New York, which is a tinier town than you would think, and the thought of having someone I know pass by and spot the evidence was unsettling. Everyone knows artichoke hearts are a convenience food, but they are socially acceptable only if you invest in the frozen or marinated/jarred kind. Cans are like processed cheese food in the Taleggio aisle.
Two hours after bringing that can home, however, I was boasting to our dinner guests about the magic ingredient in the tapenade they were happily slathering onto toasts. And, as happens whenever I say this, their eyes bugged out as I revealed that “you can use canned.”
It figures that it was the antithesis of a snooty French chef who enlightened me. I was flipping through David Lebovitz’s “My Paris Kitchen” and nearly dropped the drool-inducing cookbook when I saw that the first of his three tapenade recipes called for canned artichokes. If they were good enough for a Chez Panisse pioneer now living in Fresh Artichoke Central, they were worth a try here in the land of out-of-season/crazily pricey/prep-heavy fresh artichokes. In combination with a mere half-cup of green olives and a few flavorings, they produce a whole new sensation.
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Once my resistance was down, I started noticing artichoke cans popping open everywhere. One night I dragged out an oldish cookbook to plan another dinner party, for vegetarians, and came across hummus whipped up with two cans of good stuff: chickpeas and artichoke hearts. That recipe was transformative as well, to the point that I have adapted it with other beans: Black-eyed peas in particular have a weirdly alluring affinity for artichokes.
And when I was handed straight-from-the-oven, bubbling artichoke-Serrano ham-Roncal cheese pinxtos at a friend’s recent birthday party in a Basque restaurant – and subsequently re-created them at home using canned artichoke bottoms – any lingering impulse to use the frozen or jarred kind just faded away.
In playing around with what to do after the top is popped (because most cans of artichokes no longer need an opener), I’ve realized that the old criticism that artichoke hearts are too briny and mushy might have validity. You do need a fair amount of fat, from olive oil or cheese or cream, to balance the salinity. Pureeing matters; something about those blender blades mellows the acidity and perfects the texture.
I have also learned the hard way that some canners pack in maximum weight with not much regard for quality. The outer leaves on the soft hearts can be pretty chewy, which means that in even the most carefully prepped tapenade or hummus, you can wind up with what comes across your tongue like plastic threads. Take the time to pluck off the tough stuff. Or use canned artichoke bottoms, which are harder to find but are all flesh and totally tender.
Both hearts and bottoms cost about the same, and both are much more affordable than the more aesthetically acceptable versions of artichokes in supermarkets. When a can costs a few bucks it can free you to spring for cheese at $20 a pound. I’ve found that the worst downside to artichokes is eliminated in the canned kind: You can eat them without your accompanying glass of wine turning too sweet.
As for why a chef from America’s artichoke kingdom (California) would call for canned hearts in his love letter from Paris, Lebovitz explained via e-mail that he was actually “going for authenticity,” having himself never had artichoke tapenade made from the fresh sort in France.
“I think it’s one of those things, like using canned tuna for tuna salad (and Niçoise salad), which provides the authentic flavor, just like tinned sardines are a completely different thing than fresh sardines – both are good, but different.”
Now that I have eaten my way through about six batches of Lebovitz’s tapenade, I realize the author gets it: “I’d rather have someone make the recipe a lot, using canned artichokes, than closing the book and putting it back on the shelf, without making anything.”
I didn’t ask him about the sourcing of escargots these days.
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Schrambling is a New York food writer.
Adapted from “The Big Platter Cookbook,” by Lou Jane Temple and A. Cort Sinnes (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2004).Take away the tahini, substitute artichoke hearts and you get a much jazzier hummus. Chickpeas are, of course, most predictable as a companion ingredient. But black-eyed peas have a weirdly wonderful affinity for artichokes, and cannellini beans will work as well.
- 14-ounce can artichoke hearts, drained
- 15-ounce can no-salt-added black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- Juice of 1 lemon
- 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/2 teaspoon hot Spanish smoked paprika (pimenton), plus more for optional garnish
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt, or as needed
- 1 to 3 cloves garlic, very finely grated (may substitute finely diced pita)
Remove and discard any tough outer leaves from the artichoke hearts.
Combine the hearts in a food processor along with the black-eyed peas, oil, lemon juice, cumin, smoked paprika and salt; puree until smooth.
Transfer to a serving bowl. Stir in the garlic (to taste) and add salt as needed. Sprinkle lightly with smoked paprika, if desired.
Serve with crackers or pita wedges.
Make Ahead: The hummus can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 week.
6-8 servings; makes about 2 cups
Adapted from “My Paris Kitchen,” by David Lebovitz (Ten Speed Press, 2014).
- 14-ounce can artichoke hearts, drained
- 1/2 cup pitted green olives, preferably Castelveltrano
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed, squeezed dry and chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 2 cloves garlic, very finely grated or minced
- 1/2 teaspoon ground Aleppo pepper (may substitute 1/8 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper; see headnote)
- Sea salt (optional)
Remove and discard any tough outer leaves from each artichoke heart.
Place the hearts in a food processor along with the olives, oil, capers and lemon juice; puree for a few minutes, until smooth.
Transfer to a serving bowl; stir in half of the minced garlic and all of the Aleppo pepper. Taste, and add some or all of the remaining garlic and/or salt as needed.
Serve on crackers or toasts.
Make Ahead: The tapenade can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
6-8 servings; makes about 1 1/2 cups
Artichoke, Ham and Cheese Pinxtos
- 14-ounce can artichoke bottoms, drained
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 ounces Serrano ham, coarsely chopped
- 6 ounces Roncal cheese, grated (see headnote; may substitute a young pecorino Romano)
- Coarse sea salt (see headnote)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- One 16-inch baguette, cut into 24 thin slices
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Have a large baking sheet at hand.
Combine the artichoke bottoms and oil in a food processor; puree until smooth and light, about 1 1/2 minutes, stopping to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed.
Transfer to a bowl; stir in the ham and cheese. Season lightly with salt and pepper.
Arrange the baguette slices on the baking sheet in a single layer; toast for 5 minutes, then remove from the oven. Spread the artichoke mixture thickly on top of each baguette slice. Return to the oven; toast for 8 to 10 minutes or until the cheese has melted and lightly browned in spots.
8-12 servings; makes 24 pieces