Being quite nimble as a child, I often had the task of catching the chicken for Sunday dinner at one of our relatives' farms. As the chicken lost its head, I would turn my back for a sad, rarely silent moment. Plucking feathers, though, usually revived my spirits and my appetite.
One grandmother always stewed the whole bird with homemade egg noodles. An aunt, considered a fancy cook, coated the chicken pieces with peppery paprika-seasoned flour and fried them crisp in home-rendered lard (she lived to be 96). In the Midwest in those days, chicken couldn't get much better.
Things were different in California. On a neighboring artichoke ranch, a wonderful cook named Ida would simmer her chicken with artichokes and mushrooms. It was my favorite dish.
In some ways, Ida was more ruthless with the artichokes than the chicken. She tore off the coarse leaves, hacked off the thorns, peeled the stems, and yanked out the fuzzy chokes. In fact, she threw away more than she cooked ― but I learned a lesson. Shorn to edibility, the artichoke releases its sweetness, as it does in this simple but memorable dish.
And even though I've switched to the market for ingredients, I still play tough with artichokes.