Wednesday, October 12, 2005


Yesterday a weeknight dinner at home turned into an improvised musical serata.

Walking home, thinking about the artichokes I’d cleaned and left in the fridge in lemon juice and water, I had a great idea of what to do with them. I remembered reading a recipe from Chez Panisse in which shavings of raw artichoke hearts and fennel were tossed with olive oil, lemon, and garnished with shaved parmesan. The question was then – how to use that idea of combined flavors to make a more substantial main course. So I stopped off at the market and picked up a fennel bulb, chicken thighs, and a bottle of Nebbiolo (for drinking).
I halved the chicken thighs (3 enormous ones), salt and peppered, and browned them well in olive oil, skin side down first so that it got nicely crisped and cooked some of the fat out. The chicken doesn’t have to be cooked entirely through, but getting the outsides browned is important for the flavor. Removed the chicken to a plate and drained the excess fat from the pan, then added 6 chopped artichokes.
The artichokes were little ones, not quite babies, but on the small side. I’d stripped them of all the tough outer leaves, more or less removing all green; aggressively peeled and trimmed the bases and stems; then quartered them and removed the chokes. For this dish, I left the quartered blossoms intact and chopped the stems.
I let the artichokes sauté a minute on their own, then added the fennel, chopped coarsely, and a chopped onion. I sweated all these ingredients over a high flame until they were starting to brown, then lowered the heat to medium and nested the chicken in the vegetables, grabbed a lemon half that was sitting on the counter and squeezed it over the pan, added about a half cup of water, then generously poured some white wine we had in the fridge in as well. Covered the pan to let the flavors meld and to let everything finish cooking. Chopped fennel fronds and added them as an herb. I checked every few minutes to stir, control the amount of liquid, taste (it needed several doses of salt and wine, I thought, though at the end I felt perhaps I’d overdone the wine a tiny bit). Finally, I uncovered the pan when the artichokes were cooked and reduced the liquid in the pan to nil.
This was excellent!
Some possible variations: add black olives, use different liquids (squeezing in an orange would be interesting, though I’d do that without the artichokes I think – reminiscent of a fennel orange salad), use other meats like rabbit or duck or sausage or a combination, start the vegetables off with pancetta and use red wine…. The basic method isn’t anything special, but offers interesting possibilities for combining ingredients.

Marta and I sat and enjoyed this at a very leisurely pace, talking and laughing; when her sister and friend came back from what was supposed to be a trip to the movies, “Bolognesi deficienti!…cretini…maleducati…”. They couldn’t find the cinema and couldn’t get intelligible directions from anyone they met. They quieted down and polished off huge portions of the braised chicken and artichokes, finishing the remaining ¾ and wiping the pan clean with bread. Then they got giggly. Then Marta and I got giggly. Then Marta’s friend Stefano came and entertained us further.

Marta’s sister Giulia is studying piano at an important conservatory – conversation turned to music and after some convincing, Marta brought out the accordion to play for us. Then out came the bongos to accompany. Then another drum from a corner of my room. Then improvised percussion on pots and pans, tin cans and keys, spoons, sticks and CD covers. Needless to say, we made a tremendous racket in the kitchen until 11pm, when Marta wisely insisted we stop for the sake of neighbors. Instead of stopping, we took our new band to Piazza Maggiore, where you’ll often find kids or gypsies or drunken troupes of merry-makers on musical romps. The procession there, armed with our makeshift percussion section, was more fun than I’ve had playing music in ages. We marched through narrow streets and under porticoes, to encouraging cheers from the windows above or to clucks of disapproving little widows, stomping on metal plates in the sidewalk to punctuate our beats, banging on street signs, inciting spontaneous singing by passersby. We played briefly at Piazza Maggiore, then regrouped to march to another friend’s house where all the inhabitants are musicians. They have a keyboard and guitars and another kitchen full of potential instruments, which we incorporated, to the dismay of their neighbors. We played without intervention for an hour or so, until the lady across the street caught someone’s eye and we quieted down a minute to hear her. “You all are wonderful…” she began, and knowing that a “but” was coming we all interjected “OH! Grazie, signora!” and recommenced a afro-cuban jazz piece we were enjoying. But eventually she did get us to close the windows and mute the drums, promising free plates of tortellini to us if we stopped by the address she shouted out the window.

We finally, around 1:30 am, calmed down to listen to the resident and guest pianists play Ravel and Bach. They played musical chairs, trading off one person playing a movement of a piece, then another person the next. It’s marvelous to hear great musicians even if they’re messing around jamming on the Tetris themesong while I play a tin can with a spoon. Well worth the lost sleep.


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