All of the spring fruits and veggies that are popping up the farmer’s market and grocery store have me thoroughly inspired. Last week’s (Strawberry Rhubarb Pie) was a first-time success and got some pretty stellar reviews from the folks who snagged a piece. Unfortunately, not all of my culinary endeavors are successes, even if they aren’t first attempts. Read on for the sad story of my troubled relationship with my favorite sauce, hollandaise.
Artichokes with hollandaise sauce is a classic pairing which has seen a recent spike in popularity of late – easily attributed to their role in the film “Julie and Julia” and the subsequent rise in the number of folks working their way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. However, this spring I got the artichoke bug from watching several episodes of Cooking Channel’s “French Food at Home”. It’s one of the few network cooking shows that I watch with any regularity because it manages to feature food that is accessible while still being refined and classic – and it doesn’t have any of those kitschy gimmicks that generally make me want to reach out and shake the host until they scream “uncle” (message me if you want a list of those folks). Laura Calder, the host, is just a regular Canadian chick who has spent a lot of time in France and likes to make really good food. Basically, she’s who I want to be. Plus, she shares my deep and abiding love of roasted chicken. I think I might keep tweeting at her until she responds…
Anyway, I always have at least 10 episodes on my Tivo (blessed little device), and I recently curled up on my couch to let Laura entertain me with Tizza Soup (pureed vegetable soup with artichokes), Slivered Artichokes with Lemon, and Artichokes with Brown Butter Hollandaise. YUM. So, when I was wandering around Trader Joe’s and saw them for only $1.29 each – my local Harris Teeter sells them for $3.49 each – I knew what I was going to be making. Trouble was, even though I had eaten artichokes in any number of ways, I had never in my life tried to cook one. Turns out it’s a teensy bit tricky. First of all, there’s very little of the actual artichoke that you can eat. Second, the fuzzy choke in the center is a pain in the you-know-what to deal with. Not to mention the fact that it’s extraordinarily unpleasant to eat (a lesson I learned when I made Tizza Soup and missed a little bit of it). However, when it came to simply boiling the artichokes I think I managed to do alright.
When you’re cleaning artichokes it’s imperative that you have a bowl of cold water and lemons around. When you cut them they will immediately start to brown without the application of some acid. A halved lemon works well for this. I simply sliced of the bottom to make a flat base, sliced off the top half of the bulb with a sharp knife, and pulled away 2-3 layers of the outer leaves, cleaned up the base with a paring knife, then popped them in a pot to simmer away for 20 or so minutes, or until the base was easily pierced with a knife or fork. Presto, boiled artichokes! The only annoying part is removing the choke , but once cooked it’s fairly easy to do with a spoon. This brief video pretty much sums it up better than I could.
With the artichokes simmering away, I proceeded to work on my hollandaise. With a pot of lightly simmering water, a glass bowl, whisk, egg yolks, clarified butter, salt, pepper, lemon juice, and cayenne on hand, I was just sure I was going to be able to make it work this time. I’ve made it a number of times before and only once have a managed to achieve the perfect, creamy consistency. Most of the time though I have failed miserably and ended up with a goopy broken, greasy sauce that, while still tasty, leaves a lot to be desired. While whisking my egg yolks in my little double boiler setup and ever so slowly drizzling clarified butter into them, I almost had myself convinced that this time it was going to work. For a minute or two it really looked like I was heading toward hollandaise heaven, but then the sauce broke and I was crestfallen. However, determined not to let that be the end of it, I cracked two more eggs and proceeded to whisk the yolks into my broken sauce. For yet another agonizing minute I was able to return the sauce to a creamy state. And then it broke again. This time I knew there was no salvation for this buttery delicacy. Not one to let perfection get in the way of a snack however, I still scraped the fruits of my ill-fated effort into the center of my choke-less artichokes and proceeded to give them a try.
Let me tell you, when I do finally figure out how to consistently turn out great hollandaise, I will be making it to serve with artichokes ALL OF THE TIME. The (former) picky eater in me was a little skeptical about how much I would like them, but it turns out that I needn’t have worried. Basically you pull out one of the leaves, use it to scoop up a little bit of sauce, then use your teeth to scrape the sauce and the soft flesh off the bottom of the leaf before discarding it (the leaves are too tough to eat). It’s tangy and lightly sweet at the same time and a perfect appetizer or first course. I wish I could offer a foolproof method for making this dish at home. Perhaps one day I will, at which point I will post about my glorious success. The reality is that for every successful recipe I post here, there are often several failed iterations which came before it. It’s the nature of the journey of cooking and what gives you a sense of achievement and satisfaction when a dish finally turns out just right. It’s also the reason that I always encourage people to just get in the kitchen and try something, even if it seems intimidating.