taste perversion

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Artichoke and Roasted Garlic Chick Pea Dip

Feb 23 2010

this picture gives you basically the whole recipe

Belated epilogue to last week’s posts about artichokes: a recipe you can use to test the “sweet” effect of preserved artichokes that’s not the typical, creamy spinach affair. While I was trying to figure out what to call it, I got into a little debate about what counts as “hummus,” hinging on the importance of tahini. I was initially pro-“hummus,” arguing that you can buy “hummus” labeled “tahini-free” (why on earth any sizable number of people would desire tahini-free hummus I have no idea—are there really that many people with sesame allergies? Is it a fat-phobia thing?). But I had to concede that the label implies that hummus would normally be expected to have tahini, and indeed wikipedia defines hummus as “a dip or spread made from cooked, mashed chickpeas, blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and garlic.” On the other hand, it also says the full name in Arabic is “حُمُّص بطحينة (ḥummuṣ bi tahnia) which means chickpeas with tahina,” which simultaneously implies that hummus always has tahini and that hummus qua hummus is something separate from tahini.

Ultimately, I decided that the rosemary and artichoke made it sufficiently distinct from hummus to merit a different name, but it’s definitely hummus-like. However, that’s no reason to feel wedded to the chick peas. If I’d had cannellini beans, I probably would have used those instead. Cranberry beans or black-eyed peas would probably work as well. And of course, if you have sufficient foresight, you can use dried beans instead of canned.

The “sweet” effect is definitely more pronounced before you add the acid, but like most bean-based dips/soups, you’ll probably want the acid in there to brighten the flavors. So f you really want to play with taste perversion, try it without the acid first. Let the dip really coat your tongue, give it a minute, and then drink some water. See if it doesn’t taste at least a little bit sweet.

Serve with bread, chips, crackers, cut vegetables, or as a sandwich spread. Makes a little more than 2 cups.

Recipe: Artichoke and Roasted Garlic Chick Pea Dip

  • 1 head garlic, roasted
  • 1 12-15 oz. can artichoke hearts, drained
  • 1 16 oz. can chickpeas, drained
  • 3-4 T. olive oil
  • 2 t. kosher salt (might want to start with 1 t. regular salt and adjust to taste)
  • 1 t. black pepper
  • 1/8 t. cayenne pepper
  • herbs (optional and flexible—I used about 1 t. fresh rosemary and 1 t. dried “Italian seasoning. I wish I’d had about 1 T. fresh parsley; any combination of rosemary, oregano, thyme, and/or parsley, fresh or dried would be great)
  • 1 t. white wine vinegar and/or 1 T. lemon juice 

the lazy person's roasted garlic1. Roast the garlic. Some people say you should slice the head in half and brush it with olive oil or some other kind of fanciness, but I never bother with that. I just wrap the whole head in foil and throw it in a 350-400F oven for 45-60 minutes. If I’m not using the oven for something else, I do it in the toaster oven to save energy. And basically anytime I’m going to have the oven on for 45+ minutes, I throw a head of garlic in too because why not? It’s delicious on its own, just mashed up with a little salt and spread on bread or crackers, and it’s awesome in a million other things—bean dips, composed butters, bread, mashed root vegetables, squash puree, salad dressings. You can do this up to a week in advance and store it in the refrigerator until you’re ready to use it.

2. Once the garlic is cool enough to handle, peel the cloves into a blender or food processor. Add the rest of the ingredients, except for 1 T. of the olive oil and the acid.

once it's roasted the peel just falls away

3. Puree, adding more oil or water if necessary to make the mixture smooth and creamy. Adjust seasoning to taste, including adding lemon juice and/or white wine vinegar if desired.

not much to look at, but you could pretty it up with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of paprika just like hummus if you were so inclined

The Sweet Science of Artichokes

Feb 17 2010

i wanted a picture of artichokes boxing, but this'll have to do. image from http://miscellainey.blogspot.com/2007_08_01_archive.html 

At least you’ll never be a vegetable—even artichokes have hearts. –Amelie

I suspect that one of the reasons artichokes show up in appetizers so often, especially in the sugar-loving U.S., is that they make everything you eat or drink for a little while afterwards, including water, taste slightly sweet. It’s not quite the simple straightforward sweetness of sucrose, which I’m not sure would be an especially desirable effect no matter how much you like sweet things. Instead, it’s more of a sweet-savory enhancement, perhaps even a little bit umami.I cropped the chart description for length, but will happily send it to anyone who's really interested

According to a 1972 article in Science, the first written account of artichokes’ capacity for taste perversion followed a dinner for biologists at the 1934 AAAS conference. The salad course consisted of globe artichokes, and someone must have taken a survey—of the the nearly 250 biologists in attendance, 60% reported that after eating the artichoke, water tasted different, a difference most of them described as “sweet” but a small number said was “bitter.”

The Science article reports on the results of an experiment that showed that artichoke extract modifies the taste of water by temporarily affecting the tongue rather than the food or drink (which makes it different than saccharine, which can make water taste sort of sweet and/or bitter as residue on the tongue is re-diluted). They also isolated two molecules found in artichokes—cholorgenic acid and cynarin, and found that both, independently, had a similar effects on the perceived sweetness of water as adding 2 tsp. sugar to 6 oz. water.

However, a less formal acknowledgment of the strange effects of the artichoke exists in the ancient folk wisdom that artichokes are “impossible” to pair with wine. An article in Wine News Magazine claims to “dispel” the “antiquated myth” of impossible pairings, but many of the suggestions purport to work by minimizing the presence or effect of the cynarin, either by boiling the artichoke in "ample water” or serving it with acids like lemon and/or mayonnaise. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether either technique actually does anything to the cynarin and/or chlorogenic acid, I’m not sure that eliminating the chemical basis for the unique taste of the artichoke passes muster as a successful “pairing.” Essentially what they’ve done there is pair the wine with a less-artichokey version of the artichoke.

The Science article notes that the effects of cynarin and cholorogenic acid last longer than the sweet taste of sugar or saccharine, but are weaker and shorter-lived than that of miraculin, the protein in “miracle fruit.” Miraculin works by adhering to sweet-receptors on the tongue and acids in food, which makes the acids activate the sweet-receptors. I tried that with a bunch of friends shortly after The New York Times reported on it, and it really is trippy—lemons taste like candy, goat cheese tastes like cheesecake, and we all got stomachaches from eating so much acidic food in such a short period of time.

However, the protein miraculin seems to affect a much larger percentage of the population than the acids in artichoke. Just like at the AAAS dinner, a large number of the 1972 experiment’s participants didn’t experience a sweet taste after consuming artichoke extract. And again, a very small number actually said that the artichokes made water taste bitter. So it seems like cynarin/cholorgenic acid must have a different kind of mechanism, one that works for a majority of the population but exempts a substantial minority. Sadly, I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is. Does it inhibit bitter receptors? Attach temporarily to a certain kind of sweet receptor not everyone has? It seems to make white wines taste more sour, so perhaps it inhibits the tongue from registering the sugars in the wine? I don’t know, and I have searched. If you know, please share.

Anyhow, back to the question of what might alter or inhibit the cynarin and/or cholorogenic acid. In a post on "Transcription and Translation" also largely based on that 1972 Science article, biochemist Alex Palazzo claims that “pickled artichoke hearts don’t have this property.” I’m not entirely convinced, although this might be an issue of semantics. I won’t dispute that the sweetish aftertaste of canned or jarred artichokes seems muted in comparison with fresh artichokes, but I swear that even in that ubiquitous creamy, spinach-filled dip, or as a pizza topping, or in salads, or when added to paella, artichokes preserved in brine do contribute a subtly-sweet taste that affects the entire dish and any accompanying beverages. However, again based on my own subjective tastes and personal experience, marinated artichokes have little or no sweet aftertaste.

The difference seems to be that marinades, by definition, contain acid whereas brines typically do not—brines are just salty solutions. Now, pickling can imply either. Traditional pickling methods involve fermenting foods in brine, with no added acid. Their sourness is a product of the acids produced during fermentation. The more common form of pickling today begins with a solution that has added acids, usually vinegar. If Palazzo was referring only to the latter method—which would be artichokes labeled “marinated,” I agree with him. That also makes sense with the chefs’ suggestions to add acids in order to make artichokes play nice with wine; added acids must interfere with the cynarin and/or cholorogenic acid in the artichoke. But salt doesn’t seem to. Artichokes sold canned or jarred in brine (also technically “pickled”) still make food taste sweet.

Tomorrow, as this is apparently becoming artichoke week, I’ll post a super-easy recipe you can try to test the effects of artichokes in brine for yourself.

[Edit: Comments closed due to spam, but I welcome feedback. Feel free to e-mail me (see "contact" tab).

How to Eat an Artichoke, and other things trivia texting services can’t tell you

Feb 15 2010

buying two fat globe artichokes in February in Michigan feels positively *decadent*

Every time I eat a whole, fresh artichoke I wonder two things:

photo by Matthew Wallenstein1) Who was the first person to take the time to figure out that if you cook this giant thistle bud and then remove all the stuff that’s still completely inedible, at the very center, there are a few ounces—not more than a few bites worth—of flesh that’s not just edible, but really tasty? (which frequently leads to questions 1a: how hungry would you have to be? and 1b: what else might that person have attempted to cook and eat?) and

2) How often do artichokes inspire that question? Like, in what percentage of instances where globe artichokes are prepared and consumed with at least some of their inedible parts intact do they cause people to wonder about their origins? Is it over 50%? Could it be as high as 70%? How many times, over how many different artichokes, has some version of the same conversation about the wonder and mystery of the artichoke’s discovery taken place?

Neither of which are answerable. The most we can know about the first person (or persons) who ate artichokes is that they probably lived in North Africa, where the giant thistles are still found in their wild form and where they acquired the Arabic name “al kharshuf,” which all the European names were derived from. But despite years and years of artichoke eating, I had never bothered to even find out that much because it’s not really a need to know kind of wonder that artichokes inspire. It’s more that they activate a sense of awe. Wonderment, I guess.

I mean, how weird and wonderful is it that this thorny armadillo of a vegetable exists? That there’s just a tiny piece of edible flesh clinging to each of the tough, pointy leaves and once you remove all of them and the bristly “choke,” you uncover this amazing savory-sweet heart that tastes completely unlike anything else in the world (except, apparently, the related cardoon I’ve never encountered)? If you read about it in a poem, you’d probably think it was a totally clumsy, ham-handed metaphor, too obvious by half. How literally incredible that some plant just happened to evolve that way.

Nonetheless, I decided to put question #1 to one of those crazy new services that charge you a fee to google shit for you, you lazy git text you answers to random questions. I asked kgb “Who was the first person to eat an artichoke?” at 5:57 pm. Here’s the exchange that followed:

From 542542

Thanks and sit tight. kgb is researching your answer & will send it shortly ($.99/answer). Msg&Data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help or STOP to cancel.

Received: Mon Feb 15, 5:58 pm

From 542542

Thanks for using kgb_Do you have any questions for us? We would love to answer it. Ask us! 24/7. No charge. kgb_team

Received: Mon Feb 15, 5:59 pm

To 542542

Never received answer to question: who was the first person to eat an artichoke?

Sent: Mon Feb 15, 6:02 pm

From 542542

Sorry for the delay. Pliny the Elder observed in 77 A.D. that Romans consumed artichokes. The name of the person to try it is unknown. No charge for this one.

Received: Mon Feb 15, 6:10 pm

So at least they don’t charge you if they can’t answer, and apologize if they get a non-answer to you in less time than it would take a sumo wrestler to stomp your ass. (I suppose that’s non-endorsing with faint praise?) ChaCha, “ur mobile BFF,” also basically threw in the towel:

The origin of artichokes is unknown, they are said to have come from the Maghreb (North Africa), so who knows who ate one first! Link

That “so” weirdly implies a causal connection between the fact that they’re from North Africa and the fact that no one knows who ate one first which seems a bit “Maghreb, land of mystery about which no historical facts can be ascertained!” If they were said to come from Sweden, would that also explain why we don’t know who ate one first? Another of our BFFs at ChaCha borrows a line from Greek mythology:

Cynara was a woman whom Zeus fell in love with and she betrayed him and he turned her into an artichoke because she ate them. Link

The myth of Cynara actually has a neat legacy in the names of one of the molecules that give artichokes their unique capacity for taste perversion—cynarin, which I’ll be writing more about in the next artichoke entry—and the liqueur made from artichokes—Cynar. But it doesn’t get us any closer to an answer to the questions.

I think a lot of what makes artichokes so intriguing is the fact that you have to be taught how to eat them, or initiated into what seems like a secret order of artichoke eaters. They’re complicated and fussy, the vegetal antithesis of the apple, whose starring role in so many sacred and secular stories seems fundamentally tied to how easy and natural the act of biting into a raw apple is. Surely Eve could have withstood the temptations of an artichoke. Surely Snow White would have figured out her disguised stepmother was up to no good by the time she was done with all that cleaning and trimming and cooking. You simply could not stumble on an artichoke in the wild and intuit how to consume it. And that’s not just because it has to be cooked: how much easier is it to figure out what to do with a potato or a winter squash?

off with its headMy mom was the one who taught me how to prepare and eat artichokes. On the rare occasions when they happened to be on sale at the grocery store, she would buy just one. We never ate them with or in a meal, always by themselves, often on the same day that we had gone shopping. I never saw other people eating them—not at restaurants or on television or at friends’ houses. I don’t even remember ever seeing my dad eat one. So artichokes always seemed like this special secret vegetable that only my mom knew what to do with.

However, wikipedia claims that what she always did with them: cut off the stem and the top, trim the leaves, steam until tender, and eat with butter is the way they are “most frequently prepared” in the U.S. I kind of doubt that in terms of the total volume of artichoke consumed; most artichokes eaten in America are probably consumed in the form of a creamy dip with a 90% chance of including spinach. But that kind of dip is almost always made with artichokes that have been frozen or preserved in brine, even by home cooks and Alton Brown. If you’ve ever had fresh artichoke, you already know why: they are one of the great exceptions to the general rule that everything savory is better with cheese and/or garlic. Fresh artichokes are so good by themselves, all you really need to do is steam them and eat them. So this won’t seem like much of a recipe, but in case your mom never showed you how, instructions and pictures after the jump: Read more »