21 May 2015

The Artichoke Season - Easy Peasy Kitchen Squeezy!

I have a thing or two for artichokes. They have always fascinated me, as early as my childhood days when I first got acquainted to them through my mum. It is a multi-layered fascination, starting off with their somewhat grandiloquent appellation itself that sounds like 'a choking Archibald' - a mouthful of a word that is more than we can chew, since in all honesty there isn't that much to eat out of an artichoke. You'll have to excuse it but it is a delicacy, and the description befits how it should be treated, daintily like asparagus or wild girolles. Thus if famished you are, and stodge you need, and starch you seek, better make a beeline for a pound of spuds than a heap of 'chokes!

Let's get our facts right. Artichokes are no vegetables. They are in fact an edible budding inflorescence (flower buds). In effect, what we eat is no leaves but petals, plus the base. And this is how far consumption goes, because natural wastage is to be expected from the 'choke.

Artichokes belong to the cardoon family, which incorporates their remote cousin the thistle. They originated in the Mediterranean regions and became domesticated in ancient times, and by the Middle Ages were known to grace gardens across Europe, alongside angelica, chard, boragio, herbs, cress, cabbage, parsnip, turnip, juniper, oats, beans et al - and not a single potato in sight back then! And grace is the word because artichokes add great decorative value to a garden, and I have even seen stalks of them used as part of sculptural floral displays in hotel lobbies and exhibition halls, to great effect!

I love the way artichokes perplex those who are not familiar with them. Yet perplexity shouldn't deter you from experimenting in the kitchen with this great ingredient. As a basic rule, you should go for one big artichoke (or two smaller ones) per person. The sauce that accompanies the artichokes and the temptation of bread to mop it - with fresh baguette slices a must - will sate you. As a personal preference, I find the smaller artichokes easier to deal with in terms of cooking time, taste and tenderness, than the globe artichokes. All the ones pictured here are of the purple medium-sized "Violet de Provence" variety (from my parents' Corsican garden and elsewhere in Corsica).

Artichokes Served with a Mild Mustard Sauce

Artichokes are not fiddly. If you still feel daunted, just follow my easy step-by-step recipe for a basic boiled artichoke served with a no-frills mild mustard sauce.

Bring a large kettleful of water to the boil. Meanwhile shorten the artichoke stalks with a kitchen knife, if necessary (to no shorter than an inch from the base). Rinse off the artichokes, place them in a big saucepan where they will be able to 'swim' about (as per above picture), and add a splosh of cider vinegar to kill off any bug or slug that might linger, and to prevent discolouration from the cooking process. Pour boiling water all over the artichokes. Put on the stove and return to the boil. When the water starts bubbling away, turn down to medium heat and cover the pan. Leave to a soft boil for approx. 20 mins (globe artichokes will take a good 5 mins longer). The best way to find out if the artichokes are cooked is to stick a small peeling knife into the length of the stalk. If the stalk is still hard, leave to cook a few more minutes. Drain the pan and serve the artichokes. Keep additional artichokes in the pan with the lid on until ready to be eaten.

Serve with a ramekin of Mild Mustard Sauce, only two ingredients: pure virgin olive oil and mild mustard! Add as much virgin olive oil as mild mustard to ramekins (one per person) and stir with a teaspoon (or small whisk) until both mustard and oil have creamed into an emulsion. If using stronger mustard, move to a 3 to 1 ratio.

How to Eat: Discard the outer leaves at the base of the stem which naturally tend to remain hard. Then detach one leaf at a time, plunge its fleshy root tip (pulp) into the sauce and insert halfway between the front upper and lower teeth. Then gently close the teeth onto the leaf and pull it off gently, scraping the artichoke matter off the leaf. Discard the rest of the leaf. As you work your way through the artichoke, things will get easier, as the leaves get thinner and melt in the mouth. This is where they are at their tastiest! You can end up actually eating most of the leaves as you get closer to the heart.

When you are left with the peduncle (stem and flower base), scrape off any of the downy matter if any (prevalent in globe artichokes mostly). Roughly slice the peduncle and toss in the sauce. Enjoy the tasty finale!

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