About once or twice a year (which may as well have been once or twice a milennia, as far as my preteen self was concerned), my dad would arrive home from work in the evening with a large, bulging brown paper bag under his arm, and my heart would leap, because I knew that evening we were in for a treat.
My mom would boil the artichokes until just tender (remaining admirably calm despite my wheedling demands to know precisely how much longer they’d take), and all four of us would sit at the kitchen table, peeling the leaves, dipping each one into a large bowl of salty, lemony melted butter and scraping the soft flesh off with our teeth. When all the leaves were gone, I would drop the heart into the bowl of butter until it was thoroughly drenched, and place the whole thing in my mouth. This was a solemn ritual — I concentrated very hard on appreciating and savouring the heart, putting off its ingestion for as long as possible, because it had an annoying habit of melting and slipping down my throat in a matter of seconds. We only got about three artichokes each, and who knew when we were going to have them again?
My childhood infatuation with artichokes was mostly due to their being an excellent excuse to eat gargantuan amounts of butter, which I wouldn’t ordinarily be allowed. Also, there was something ceremonial about my mother, father, brother and I sitting together, peeling the leaves, enjoying.
I have a similar love for asparagus, for much the same reasons. They were a rare treat, always served hot, slathered in salty butter. Once, on a family road trip, we stopped at the top of some mountain pass or other, and my dad hauled out our little gas cooker, a small pot and a big bunch of asparagus. The green stalks were tied with string and made to stand up in a few inches of water, then the pot was covered with foil (I remember this very clearly, even though I was only 7 or so, because I thought it such an overly elaborate method — couldn’t they just chop up the stalks, boil them and be done with it?). About 10 minutes later, there we sat, on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, eating perfectly cooked asparagus. Heaven.
|Spoils from the farmers' market...|
Recently, though, having made a commitment to eating more seasonally, I have found myself doing my weekly grocery shopping at farmers’ markets, and buying artichokes and bunches of asparagus by the dozen, because, of course, they are in season and more affordable. Having glutted myself on them slicked in butter, I was horrified to find myself daydreaming about a nice artichoke salad (!) or asparagus mixed into a pasta (see last week’s post). And yes, even soup.
This makes so much sense, though, actually. We are supposed to glut ourselves on these veggies for a few months a year — spring — while they're in season, until we are kind of sick of them. Then we don’t mind so much going without for the rest of the year.
I tried this breathtakingly simple River Café recipe only after I got a little sick (from eating all that butter) and tired of the usual. I cannot recommend it strongly enough. It might even be my favourite way to eat artichokes (sacrilege!). The liquid reduces to an intense flavour, and although there’s a lot of mint, it loses its pungency when cooked and becomes quite subtle and creamy.
I did feel terribly guilty about discarding all those precious outer leaves though, so I ate most of them. Raw. But that’s just me. If you like, you can keep some of the more tender leaves to put in a salad. Just toss them in a little lemon juice to stop them discolouring and eat on the same day. If your artichokes are fresh and young, the inner leaves should be perfectly edible raw.
These are sensational as an antipasti with bruschetta, or served with fish.
They still have a habit of melting and slipping down my throat far too quickly though.
Artichokes Roman style
12 small or 6 large globe artichokes
250ml olive oil
For the stuffing:
3 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh mint
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed with sea salt
6 tablespoons olive oil
Coursely ground black pepper
1 1⁄2 lemons, quartered
1. Using a small, sharp knife, remove the tough outer leaves of the artichokes. If necessary, trim the spikes from the top. Cut the stalks, leaving about 5cm, and peel.
2. Using your fingers, gently prise open each artichoke, turn it upside down and, while pressing down with one hand, pull out the leaves with the other. The aim is to open out and flaten the artichoke.
3. For the stuffing, mix all the ingredients together and season well. Press this mixture inside the centre of each artichoke.
4. Pour the olive oil into a heavy stainless-steel saucepan large enough to contain all the artichokes. Place the artichokes inside, stuffed side down, jammed together so they stay upright. Scatter any excess stuffing over the top. Add enough water to come one third of the way up the globes, and bring to the boil. Reduce heat, cover with a sheet of grease-proof paper, place the lid on top, and cook gently for about 30 minutes until the water has evaporated and the artichokes have begun to brown at the bottom. 5. The timing will depend on the size and freshness of the artichokes. Test for tenderness using a sharp, pointed knife. You may need to add more water and cook for longer. Ideally, the result should be tender artichokes that have begun to caramelise in the oil. Serve with lemon quarters.