I believe there are certain things to which we are each driven, like lemmings to their cliff.
Probably the most curious of mine is a tenacious pull to cook unrealistic dishes I’ve never cooked before, at bad times. These attacks are particularly acute at holidays, when all the cousins -nth removed are coming and there aren’t enough chairs.
My mother cleared an easy path for my internal lemming by having cooked several insensible things herself for big gatherings. By the time I was in my late teens, I was following her example, with the addition of a personal flourish.
My dishes bore a signature mark of being not only unreasonable but very messy, which added an impressive coating of stress and volatility. And so was born, in my twentieth year — in the wake of the unfortunate confluence of my reading that artichokes were a traditional dish at Mediterranean Seders and tasting the magically seductive carciofi a la giudía for the first time at a tiny Italian restaurant in New York — the carciofi a la giudía fiasco, which is my little insistent lemming’s finest work.
That year, we were hosting 30 people. I decided I needed about 60 big artichokes (none of which I knew how to clean, never mind fry), gallons of good olive oil and full run of the stovetop to fill with pots of oil, even though the house would soon be full of grandmothers with their dropped purses and children with their propensity for injury.
I also needed, on the day of the Seder, to focus on breathing deeply, as the hours between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. disappeared and the pile of artichokes in front of me wouldn’t, and to give up on finding a technique — instead tearing off leaves and hacking away at stems as fast and dirty as I could.
When the story of the Jews’ exodus from Egypt finally drew near its end and dinner hour approached, my mother gave me an indulgent nod and let me back into the kitchen to pick up where I’d left off.
I heated pots of oil to boiling and then added the first round of artichokes, which spurted so viciously that the woman assigned to help ducked behind a cabinet, holding a spoon in the air in a gesture of inadequate but meaningful self-defense. I then proceeded to muddle through rounds of burning and undercooking, splattering and slipping, and barely making a dent in either the mound of artichokes or the reliable hunger of the Seder guests.
For anyone lucky enough to get a small, squashed artichoke every half-hour or so, it must have been more or less pleasant. Occasionally, I lucked upon the right oil temperature — between letting artichokes languish in oil too cold, leaving them too oil-logged for even the most sanguine appetite, and plunging them in oil far too hot, ending up with raw but attractively frizzled-looking things.
For my mother, who entered the kitchen once to help, then slipped in a greasy spot and retreated to call back from the table that there was a piece of mesh which might be helpful in protecting my face from permanent scarring, it must have been fascinating to witness her daughter caught so definitely in the web of fate.
Forearms and neck speckled with red from the dozens of places I’d been burned, I continued to fry the rebellious batches, eventually receiving visitors in the kitchen — stalwart aunts and uncles who would watch me, disturbed and intrigued, as I hid behind my mesh faceguard and dipped a strainer repeatedly into the pots of oil, occasionally retrieving a deflated artichoke. If I happened to get a batch right, whoever was visiting had a little of the experience I’d imagined, after tasting perfectly, deeply seasoned and fried ones a few weeks earlier, of the just barely still cool evening air and the mystically old and elusive artichoke, lightly salted, its rich metallic flavor stung by lemon, its pool of darkened oil dignified and luxurious. There were a relative few that had such a clear, poetic impact. Most were just inconvenient and comical and tragic.
Years have passed, with my only being allowed to cook artichokes again twice, which I did with great restraint. This year, though, our Seder will be smaller than usual. I look out the window these days to plan, and destiny’s siren sings. All I can see are the first spring artichokes, battered and fried, golden and fragile and crisp, bright yellow lemons nestled among them. Though, as I type this, that strange inner lemming tugs once again, harder, and I wonder whether it might be nice to also poach fresh lake trout, one per person, which would, of course, have to be done in many shallow pans, each barely simmering with its own, odiferous court bouillon….
Tamar Adler is the author of “An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace.” More of her writing can be found in the New York Times and on the NewYorker.com
Adapted from “The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews” by Edda Servi Machlin
12 medium artichokes
2 lemons, juice and rinds
3/4 cup matzo meal
1/2 teaspoon salt
A tiny, tiny bit of freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup cold water
2 egg yolks
2 tablespoons olive oil
olive oil or safflower oil for frying
1 lemon, cut into wedges
1) Clean artichokes (for instructions, visit forward.com/food). Cut in half lengthwise and remove the chokes. Cut each in half lengthwise again. Drop each into a bowl filled with cold water and squeezed lemons.
2) Combine matzo meal, salt, and pepper with cold water. Add egg, yolks, and 2 tablespoons olive oil, and beat until smooth.
3) Drain the artichoke pieces and leave to dry for a few minutes. Heat 1 cup oil in a small frying pan. Dip the artichokes in small batches into the batter. Fry a few pieces at a time in the hot oil (for a few minutes) until golden keeping the recently fried ones on a paper towel on a baking sheet or plate. Serve very hot, straight from the oil, with wedges of lemon.