A recent visit to the local bookstore resulted in the purchase of the novel The Goldfinch by the American author Donna Tartt.1 Published in 2013, The Goldfinch won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, among other honors.
Distinctly Dickensian in breadth, The Goldfinch grabbed my attention from the mysterious opening pages, and soon I found myself deeply interested in the adventures of the protagonist, Theo Decker, who reminded me a lot of Pip, the protagonist of Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. The first person point of view works well in the story. The title refers to a small painting by Carel Fabritius (a pupil of Rembrandt) that the 13-year-old Theo takes while escaping the aftermath of a terrorist bombing at an art museum in New York City, where his mother dies. The painting accompanies Theo as his life gets buffeted by various events and is also behind some decisions he makes.
There is a fair amount of food mentioned in the novel. The inspiring episode happens early on in the story. After his mother's death, Theo moves in with his friend Andy Barbour, whose wealthy family lives on Park Avenue, NYC. The Barbours lead an engagement-rich life, and often host parties at their house. The children (Andy and his two younger siblings, plus Theo) are not included in the festivities, but when possible they partake of the food served:
Andy and I sat side by side on the lower bunk of his bed, eating cocktail shrimp and artichoke canapés from paper plates—or, rather, he ate, while I sat with the plate on my knees, untouched... From the living room: clinking glasses, smells of candle was and perfume, every now and then a voice rising brilliantly in laughter. Everything was lost, I had fallen off the map: the disorientation of being in the wrong apartment, with the wrong family, was wearing me down, so I felt groggy and punch-drunk, weepy almost, like an interrogated prisoner prevented from sleeping for days. Over and over, I kept thinking I've got to go home and then, for the millionth time, I can't. (page 88)
For the next 45+ pages, Theo's lack of appetite is mentioned often. Mrs. Barbour's attempts at providing him enticing dishes even cause bouts of jealousy in the younger Barbours. On page 135, Theo meets a person that puts him at ease and offers him a dish he eats with appetite. The story goes on, but I got "stuck" on page 88 and the artichoke canapés. In my archive there is a post on canapés (tartine) with homemade bread (pane fatto in casa)2 and one on artichoke hummus3, which uses canned artichoke hearts (cuori di carciofo). For Theo, I decided to make a spread using fresh artichokes from the farmers' market.
The sight of artichokes always reminds me of Italy, where artichokes are popular and prepared in many ways. This spread captures the essence of artichoke's flavor. While it requires more time than using canned artichoke hearts, the result is without comparison.
- 1 1/4 pounds / 570 g (2-3) artichokes, possibly organic
- 1 teaspoon / 5 ml fresh lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons / 30 ml extra-virgin olive oil for cooking the artichokes
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and halved (green germ removed, if present)
- 1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt, to taste
- 1 teaspoon minced fresh parsley
- 1 tablespoon / 15 ml extra-virgin olive oil
- 1-2 tablespoons / 15-30 ml water
- 1 tablespoon almond butter OR extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped toasted walnuts or pecans, as topping
Prepare a bowl with about 4 cups / 1 liter of water and the lemon juice.
For each artichoke: Detach and discard 3 rows of leaves, until you see the light green heart at the base. Cut off the stem and peel it to reveal the light green center and cut that into pieces. Toss into the lemony water.
With a paring knife, cut a ribbon around the base where the 3 rows of leaves attached. Cut off the top 1 inch / 2.5 cm of the artichoke and discard that top portion. Place the artichoke cut top down and slice off 1 inch / 2.5 cm all around at an angle (i.e., slice off the top portion of the external 2-3 layers of leaves).
Quarter the artichoke, carve out the hairy center (choke), then quickly cut each quarter into 1/4-inch / 6-mm slices and immediately toss them into the lemony water. Repeat with the other artichokes.
Warm up the olive oil in a 10-inch / 25 cm deep sauté pan or similar skillet, add the garlic and stir. After a minute, drain the artichokes, add them to the pan and stir well. Arrange the artichokes into a single layer, cover and cook on gentle heat until tender (about 40 minutes), stirring every now and then. If needed, add a bit of water, to prevent artichokes from sticking to the pan.
Let cool briefly then transfer the artichokes into a food processor or blender and finely chop them. Add the remaining olive oil and 1 tablespoon / 15 m of water. Continue processing, stopping at intervals to scrape the side of the bowl.
Add the almond butter or additional olive oil and 1 teaspoon / 5 ml of water and continue processing until you have a spreadable cream. If necessary, add 1 or 2 more teaspoons / 5-10 ml of water to reach a soft, creamy consistency.
Run the spread through a mesh strainer placed over a bowl, pressing on it with a spatula. With a flexible spatula, scrape the surface of the mesh on the side that faces the bowl: that is like artichoke nectar. When there are only dry strings left, discard them and scrape the bottom of the strainer one last time.
Adjust salt as needed, transfer the spread into a serving bowl, sprinkle walnuts on top and serve with toasted bread or crackers. Allowing people to make their own canapés works for a small gathering. For a party, you may want to prepare the artichoke canapés ahead of time and use different types of bread for variety.
Click on the button to hear me pronounce the Italian words mentioned in the post:
or launch the paté di carciofi audio file [mp3].
[Depending on your set-up, the audio file will be played within the browser or by your mp3 player application. Please, contact me if you encounter any problems.
This is my second contribution to the 35th edition of Novel Food, the literary/culinary event that Lisa of Champaign Taste and I started 11 years ago and that I continue to host.
Visit the linkup page to see what others have read and cooked.