- The Washington Times - Monday, April 11, 2005

It’s a mostly accepted notion that we want our winter meals steaming hot and our summer fare chilled. But now that spring is here, let’s consider that in-between temperature for just a moment.

It turns out that many foods are at their best somewhere between not quite warm and almost cool, a kind of room temperature that is neutral enough to defy categorization.

When certain foods are in this middle ground, their true flavors come forward. If you think about it, extreme temperature itself becomes a seasoning, something that commands attention and competes, as well as cooperates, with the other elements.

Once that hot or cold factor is removed, more subtle qualities are permitted to shine through, and our palate is keyed in to sensations we might otherwise overlook.

This is especially true of the artichoke. This lovely vegetable, the thorny bud of a large thistle, is perhaps the most understated of all our green friends. To eat an artichoke hot is to miss a good deal of its earthy, buttery flavor.

When chilled until very cold, many of the soft-spoken traits are obscured. But at room temperature, the flavors pop. Think of temperature as a form of seasoning, and your cooking will become more astute.

A fringe benefit of room-temperature food is that you may find yourself relaxing as the pressure of last-minute preparation fades away and you gain opportunity to hang out with the people you are feeding as you feed them. Room temperature food allows you to be your own guest.

This recipe makes a perfect light lunch entree when served with a cold fruit soup as a first course or dessert. Serve artichokes with herbed cucumber mayonnaise with a crisp white wine and some toasted sourdough walnut bread for a perfect little meal.

The artichokes are also lovely as an appetizer for a larger dinner. Eaten slowly, leaf by leaf, dip by dip, they create an atmosphere of friendly relaxation and camaraderie. I love it when food does that. The artichokes can be cooked and the mayonnaise prepared up to three days in advance. Store them in airtight containers in the refrigerator. Let the artichokes come to room temperature at least 2 hours ahead of serving time. (The time will vary, depending on the heat of your kitchen.) This recipe is best with room-temperature artichokes dipped into cold mayonnaise.

Artichokes with herbed cucumber mayonnaise

Choose artichokes that are an even green color, feel solid when squeezed, and are heavy for their size. Check to make sure that the petals and the entire globe are tight.

6 medium-size artichokes

1½ cups good-quality mayonnaise

3 tablespoons minced fresh dill

3 tablespoons minced fresh chives

2 tablespoons minced fresh basil

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard (or a grainy variety)

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

1 small (5 to 6 inches long), firm cucumber, peeled, seeded and minced

Salt and pepper

Cayenne

Slice off stems and tops from artichokes. Then use strong kitchen scissors to snip off the sharp tip of each petal.

Steam artichokes over simmering water for about 35 minutes, or until the bottoms are fork-tender and petals can be pulled off easily. Cool to room temperature and chill, if desired.

Combine mayonnaise, dill, chives, basil, mustard, lemon juice and cucumber in a medium-size bowl; mix until smooth. Season to taste with salt, pepper and cayenne. Cover tightly and chill until serving time. Makes 6 servings.

TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES

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