Europeans regard food on the plate differently from us. They are not intimidated by shapes and configurations that defy delicate knife-and-fork consumption. They begin early, eating family meals together -- yes, still.
When they make a choice between flavor and convenience, there is no contest. So when fish is ordered, it generally comes with the bones. The diner knows that the bones sweeten the flesh as it cooks. Having grown up with how to properly dispose of fish bones, these diners make quick work of it. In fancier restaurants the waiter will deftly extract the fillets and transfer them to your plate.
When dining in restaurants we often pass up tempting preparations because of not being sure how to handle them. Often our hands are the best instrument. Here are a few of the more common foods we encounter for the first course.
Sure, anyone can order just the artichoke heart and not fuss with all the leaves. But this erases the sense of reward for all the patient work and delicious little bites.
When properly prepared in a restaurant, the fuzzy choke in the middle will have been removed. This is indicated by the upside-down cone-shaped artichoke center that has been replaced in the middle of the vegetable. The saucer-shaped part of the cone makes a perfect receptacle for the sauce served with it. Just spoon a few spoonfuls into it, then proceed to strip and dip.
Pull off the leaves one at a time, dip each leaf in the sauce and, between your teeth, pull the small morsel of artichoke flesh on the bottom of the leaf. Make neat little piles of the stripped leaves.
When you arrive at the heart, if the soft cone center is still intact, just give it a twist and pull off. It comes off in one piece and its ends are very tasty. With a teaspoon pry out the inedible fuzzy choke, then with knife and fork savor the treasure that awaits.
There are two ways to go, depending on how the spears are cooked. If they are still somewhat crisp and the sauce is separate or only on the tips, pick up the firm stalk with your fingers and take nibbles from the tip down.
Alas, if springtime's greatest vegetable has been cooked until very soft and covered with a sauce, a knife and fork are required. Cut the spear into small pieces, one at a time, and secure each on the fork by pushing it on with the knife.
Oysters or clams
The presentation of these plump morsels makes the eating method almost self-explanatory. Steady the shell with your left hand (or vice versa for lefties) and use your cocktail fork to lift the chilled oyster or clam. If the muscle underneath has not been cut, use the side of the cocktail fork to release it.
Either dip the mollusk in the sauce or give it a simple squeeze of lemon juice, as the purists do. Real aficionados also lift the shell to sip the juice. This should be done as quietly as possible.
This preparation has become very popular with the increased availability of farm-raised mussels. Not only are mussels delicious, but they are also meager in calories.
Usually you will be presented with a bowl of steaming hot mussels placed on a dish plus a fork. It is perfectly proper to remove each mussel with a fork. Use a spoon to enjoy the broth, or soak it up with crusty bread.
Carol Cutler is the author of eight cookbooks.