Food and Drink

   

In Season: Artichokes

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A friend of mine bought some artichokes one time thinking he’d try something new. He laid them on the kitchen bench, looked at them perplexed – now what? Well, without guidance he battled on, struggling with the spiny petals, the hairy ‘choke’, gave up and swore off them ever since.

Artichokes can appear daunting at first – they are from the thistle family and the outer leaves/petals are tough and somewhat prickly, but to those familiar with their preparation artichokes stand alongside asparagus as the royalty of vegetables.

Artichokes were mentioned in Greek and Roman literature in the first century and are reported to have been cultivated by the Moors in Spain around 800AD. The modern variety was developed in Sicily in more recent times.

Castroville, California calls itself the ‘Artichoke Center of the World’ celebrating the annual Artichoke Festival, and in 1948 one Norma Jean King first came to public notice as Castroville’s inaugural Artichoke Queen.

Choose artichokes that appear fresh, rejecting any with wrinkled stems. Remove the hard and tougher outer leaves, and when you come to the more tender ones cut off the top 1/3. Scoop out the ‘choke’ from the centre, this is a tight bunch of fine hairs, and discard. Cut off most of the stem, leaving 1-2cm attached and use a peeler to trim them. The stems can be slightly bitter and perhaps not to everyone’s taste. As you trim the artichokes drop them into acidulated water, by adding a few drops of lemon or vinegar, to prevent browning.

Simmer them until tender, with the lid off, adding a crushed garlic clove, a lemon slice, and a bay leaf. Cooking time depends on the size of the artichoke. You can speed this up a little by quartering them first. Accompanying sauces include melted butter with lemon, mayonnaise, aioli or hollandaise. Try them combined with asparagus, topped with hollandaise as an accompaniment to a tender rare steak.

A popular dish in Rome involves slowly deep frying artichokes at a fairly low temperature until they are crisp but soft in the centre. You can also stuff and bake them – fillings can be herbed, buttered fresh breadcrumbs or a farce of minced lamb, onion, tomato, pine nuts, currants, parsley, mint, pepper, and Middle Eastern spice mix.

Artichokes are reported to contain the highest amount of anti-oxidants of all vegetables. They also contain a chemical called cynarin, which inhibits taste receptors and makes anything consumed afterwards taste sweeter than it is, a problem when choosing a matching wine.

Here is a traditional approach that makes a warming entree or light meal in cool weather, or you can make it the day before and eat it cold as a salad or part of an antipasto platter.

Artichokes alla Romana (serves four)
4 Artichokes
½ bunch Parsley (flat leaf has more flavour)
3 cloves Garlic (or more!)
8 Anchovy fillets (tinned)
2 tsp Anchovy oil (from the tin)
50 ml Lemon juice
50 ml Dry white wine
250 ml Olive oil
250 ml Water

Method

Prepare artichokes and submerge in acidulated water.

Process parsley, anchovies and garlic, then add the liquids and process to a paste.

Place artichokes in an oven proof dish that can go on direct heat.

Pour over the paste, bring to boil quickly, cover with a lid then transfer to the oven.

Cook at 180° until tender, turning in the juices every now and then.

Serve with crusty bread.


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