"...thus we turn
into a corrupt feast
the earth's monstrosities,
those which even the animals
Hands up please, all of those who have cooked an artichoke. If my personal experience is any gauge, not too many of you will have an arm raised at this point. This comes as no great surprise, because the artichoke is somewhat of a fearsome vegetable - not only in its appearance, but as well the seemingly daunting preparation that is required. And lets face it; these barriers will require a giant leap of faith for those many who have never even tasted this delicious, mysterious and enchanting vegetable.
This little piece is intended just for you - those souls who have seen artichokes at the vegetable grocer and have been intrigued and put off at the same time. It is also for those who wouldn't know what an artichoke looked like if they tripped over one. Let's get one thing clear - artichokes are not difficult to prepare. There is a method that needs to be followed, and followed closely, but this method is not difficult at all - it's just perhaps foreign - just as shelling peas would be foreign to someone presented with their very first pod.
What I'll regale you with below is a multi-purpose, fool-proof method for preparing poached artichokes. Prepared as such, a whole gamut of recipes are opened up, such as the one I include below, Roasted Stuffed Artichokes. Sure, there are plenty of other artichoke recipes you could tackle, such as braised artichokes, whole roasted artichokes, and even raw artichoke salads - but this method is the one you will want to cut your teeth on. By all means move on and try other methods when you feel confident, and are sure that artichokes are to you taste, but for the time being, let's adhere to the KISS principle.
First however, let's take a little look at the history, science and folklore behind this remarkable vegetable.
Artichokes (Cynara scolymus) are simply glorified thistles that belong to the daisy family. Those intended for eating will always be the immature flower bud, as the mature and opened flower is pretty much inedible. An artichoke plant will typically put out many of these flower buds, with the largest found towards the top of the plant. In cultivation, the lower and hence smaller buds will often be culled, sacrificed to allow the plant to expend energy growing fewer, and larger artichokes.
The artichoke plant is native to Mediterranean regions, and this bears out today as many of the classic artichoke recipes hail from Southern Italy and Provençal France. Our favourite culinary jester and all-round hell-raiser ariels was once again on the money when he said above that I would provide a recipe "...only slightly modified from the Roman...". Although there is evidence that the ancient Greeks partook of artichokes, it was The Romans that really got exited about the vegetable, considering it a delicacy. Strangely, not all contemporary commentators saw the vegetable in the same light - the opening quote is attributed to book 19 of Pliny's Natural History, who clearly was not a lover of thistles.
Equally dismissive was Louis Lemery, who in his early 18th Century work, Treatise on Food commented thus;
"Artichokes suit elderly people at all times,
and those of a phlegmatic and melancholy disposition."
Larousse Gastronomique attempts to be more precise than the Mediterranean origin of the vegetable, and states that Sicily is its native home. I see this as somewhat a big call, but there is no doubt that the Italians were the early adopters, if not with consuming the thistle, then at least with documenting it.
Catherine de Medici packed quite a lot into her suitcase when she left Florence and moved to France to marry Henry II. Table cutlery and a decent recipe for ice cream were among them, but it seems there was an artichoke in there as well, because she is attributed with introducing the vegetable to the French, who are known lovers of the vegetable.
In Australia, and most English speaking countries as well I suspect, when you ask for an artichoke, you will simply be sold an artichoke. However, in Europe, particularly Italy and France, artichokes will be sold by variety according to the season or the customer's requirement. As always, these varieties have evocative and tantalizing names; Camus of Brittany, with its large, green and round bud, the pointy green artichokes of Loan, or the shockingly purple and tiny poivrade specimens so beloved in Provence.
In non-European countries, we aren't so lucky to purchase by variety. Generally we have to rely on seasons, as different varieties come onto the market at different times. The first artichokes usually come onto the market at the start of winter, and these will for the most part be the rounder green varieties. Later in winter, and into spring the longer, purple varieties will become available. All up, good, fresh artichokes should be available from the start of winter until late spring. One variety you probably won't find are the tiny purple treats that are so sought after in Europe. There are very limited crops of these starting to appear in Australia, so perhaps you could find some in you local area if you search hard enough. These are the babies to use for the whole roasted artichokes that anthropod describes above.
Also treated above by anthropod is the chemical cynarin, which indeed does make some people detect only sweetness in foods consumed immediately after eating an artichoke, in much the same manner as the miracle fruit. However, the discovery of cynarin, and its odd properties has an intriguing origin. Many have long suspected that artichokes possess bizarre sensory properties and in 1934 this hunch was put to its first scientific test. 250 guests were served artichokes with mayonnaise, and immediately after were presented with a glass of water. A surprising 60% of the guests reported a noticeable sweetness in their water. It was not until 1954 that cynarin as a compound was discovered, and in 1972 the taste test was repeated, this time with a whopping 85% of diners reporting the sweet effect. It is for this reason that artichokes are generally not paired with wine, and never when seriously expensive wine is to be consumed sometime during the meal.
OK, now that the brainiac stuff is out of the way, let's get cooking. First, you need to buy good artichokes. Whatever variety you buy, there should be at least some of the stem attached. The stem will range from at least 5 or 6 cm, up to 25 - 30 cm in length. With a fresh artichoke this stem will be turgorous, or firm and rigid. If it is at all limp, like so many boyfriends before, discard it. The bud, or head of the artichoke should be full of tightly packed leaves - or more correctly, sepals. If the bud is starting to open, or the sepals feel at all loose or floppy, shop elsewhere.
Apart from their weird anatomy, one of the greatest fears most cooks have about artichokes is the oxidization factor. I'll be blunt - not to scare you, but hopefully to clear a few things up. If you cut an artichoke and leave it exposed to room temperature, the cut surface will turn black. If you use iron, aluminium, carbon steel or any other reactive metal when preparing artichokes, be that knives, pans or whatever, they will turn black. Sound like a pain in the arse? You bet. Easy to get around? Definitely.
When artichokes turn black, they are oxidizing. And what is the best way to prevent this? An anti-oxidant doesn't sound too far wrong to me. The best anti-oxidant you can use in cookery is ascorbic acid, or good 'ole vitamin C. This is found in plenty of places, but mainly in citrus fruits. Lemons have the best ascorbic acid to unobtrusive flavour ratio, so this is what I recommend you use.
Just about every restaurant recipe differs greatly from those intended for the home cook. One of the main reasons is that restaurant food is generally prepared to a certain point, then refrigerated or stored, so it can be later assembled in just a matter of minutes. It is always best to cook your artichokes then eat them immediately, otherwise over time they will turn grey and eventually black. This is not always possible in a restaurant, so we use a few tricks - one of which I will pass on to you now. It's known as a blanc, which is an old French technique of whisking flour into boiling liquid. It makes the liquid opaque and viscous, and has the delightful property of preventing certain vegetables from oxidizing - even when stored for a few days in the fridge. The following recipe for poached artichokes uses a blanc, but even if you intend to eat the artichokes straight away, use the blanc method anyway, as it is good technique - and who knows, you might have a few left over that you might want to keep for a day or two.
As spot on as ariels was with the Roman connection, he is way, oh so way off the mark on a few points. My recipe will contain no truffles, no smoked mole paté and no nectarines. My recipe will also not contain any 40-minute boiling that will reduce your wonderful artichokes to pale grey ghosts that will fall apart as you attempt to scoop them from the pot.
Still with me? Still hungry? Still keen? Let's get chopping.
Most recipes similar to this will be labeled "boiled artichokes" or something similar. This recipe is pretty much the same, but I hesitate to use the word "boil", as you should never boil artichokes, just simmer them gently.
Select a large bowl or bucket that will hold the artichokes and fill it with cold water. Cut the lemon into halves and squeeze the juice of one half into the bowl of water. Don't worry about the pips and such; in fact chuck the spent lemon half into the water as well. This is your acidulated water that will prevent the artichokes from turning black as you prepare them.
Choose a large, sharp, heavy knife and cut away the top third of the artichoke. Trim the stem to about 10 cm and immediately plunge the whole artichoke into the lemon water to prevent oxidization. Pull away the coarse outer leaves and discard, snapping until you reach the pale and soft inner section. Using a vegetable peeler, or a very sharp paring knife, peel the stem and trim the base of the bud until it is pale and smooth. Periodically dip the artichoke into the acidulated water as you go along, then plunge the whole thing into the acid water when you are done.
The artichokes can be stored like this for up to 6 hours before you cook them. Bring a large stainless steel pot of water to the boil, around 4 or 5 litres if possible (just over a gallon). Place the flour in a small bowl and whisk to a paste with a little bit of cold water. Add this paste to the boiling water and whisk well, then add the salt and juice of the other half lemon. When the water returns to the boil, turn it down to a good simmer and add the artichokes. Place a plate on top to keep them submerged. Simmer for 9-10 minutes and then poke them with a skewer or a fork. If the skewer sinks in with ease, they are done, but if there is any resistance, keep cooking for a few minutes more. Do not simmer artichokes for 30-plus minutes under any reasonable circumstances - ever.
When cooked, lift the artichokes out and stand them flower side down on a dinner plate to cool. When the poaching liquid has cooled, move the artichokes to a non-metal container and cover with the liquid. Store these in the refrigerator for up to 3 days. Use in any recipe requiring cooked artichokes, or even better - use them in the following recipe.
Roasted Artichokes Stuffed with Sippets, Parsley, Parmesan and Lemon
Pre-heat your oven to 200° C (390° F). Mix all the ingredients, except the artichokes in a bowl and set aside. Cut the artichokes down the middle lengthways. Place cut side up on a baking tray (baking sheet) and look at the base of the flowery bud. If there is an abundance of hairy filaments, these will need to be removed. This is the choke, and it is chokingly inedible. Use a small coffee spoon to scoop out the offending choke. Don't panic if you can't see any hairy choke at all - you are fortunate enough to have young artichokes, or varieties that don't choke up too much. Using the same spoon, push a hollow into the middle of the artichoke halves, and then stuff with a good amount of the sippet an parsley mixture. Place in the oven for about 10 minutes, or until the artichokes are warmed through, and the stuffing is crunchy and bubbly.
Serve alongside a balsamic dressed rocket salad - and without the wine this time. Perhaps try a very crisp lager - or even a glass of sparkling mineral water.