Most people I know would rather walk six miles than cook half a dozen artichokes. Or one, for that matter. It has nothing to do with disliking artichokes but is all about thinking this is the world’s most complex vegetable and they’d rather avoid it.
Those friends and acquaintances who actually use artichokes once in a while are most wary of them, in many cases almost scared. At best, they boil them whole, pull off the leaves and dip them into melted butter.
When eating them cold, the dip is a vinaigrette.
For those who don’t want to know about artichokes and those who would like to use them but are reluctant to get involved, the globe artichoke could open up a new world of vegetable cooking and they’d discover what a versatile veggie it is. So let’s go on that voyage of discovery.
The artichoke is one of nature’s most sophisticated vegetables. It is the flower bud of a thistle-like plant and its anatomy is more intricate and interesting than any other veggie I know.
The etymology of the word artichoke is a bit of a mystery. The Oxford English Dictionary says it comes from articiocco, a north Italian word with Spanish-Arabic origins. Others say it derives from the Latin carchiophos, the word the Romans used for pinecone. There is a certain similarity in the basic shape.
The word used in England was at various times ‘archekokk’ and ‘hartechoke’. Its botanical name is ‘Cynara scolymus’ which is why a bitter drink called Cynar appeared in the 1970s. It never took off, but I still see it occasionally on some supermarket shelves.
But what’s in a name? That which we call an artichoke would by any other name still be a splendid vegetable rich in vitamins A and B, and also containing a nice mix of minerals. It has 73 calories per l00 grs, contains three per cent protein and is a diuretic.
Extracts from the leaves are said to be helpful in preventing arteriosclerosis and have also been used for jaundice, dyspepsia, liver insufficiency, chronic albuminuria and post-operative anaemia.
The artichoke was originally from Barbary and the south of Europe, and there are several varieties. Some are violet instead of green, some have sharp spikes, some are small and conical, and others are large and round.
Like most vegetables, artichokes should be eaten as soon as possible after being picked. If you have a really fresh one, it will keep for a week in the fridge, unwashed and wrapped in clingfilm.
I once kept an artichoke in the pantry for about a week and instead of discolouring and rotting, it dried out. I then put it by the kitchen window and within a few days a beautiful purple flower started to appear. Conditions on that occasion must have been just right, because I have tried to repeat this little floral show, but have never succeeded.
Artichokes are in season from September to May, so we still have three months in which to make the most of them. When buying them, look for those that are heavy and without brown streaks or spots on the leaves. They should be very compact, so if the leaves have opened out the artichokes may be somewhat past their best.
One of the reasons some people shun artichokes is that they consider their preparation to be labour-intensive. They have read recipes and think a great deal of work is involved even before they start to cook them. However, the trimming of artichokes is simple enough and it can be done quickly. They are easiest to prepare when they are being cooked whole.
First of all, twist the stem and pull it from the base. This will wrench off the tough fibres that kept the flower bud upright. Pull off some of the small leaves round the base, which you then trim with a small sharp knife and then rub with a lemon half. Slice off more than half of the spiky tops with a stainless steel knife.
Artichokes prepared like this are now ready for boiling if you are having them with melted butter or vinaigrette as a dip. Depending on their size, simmer them for 15-25 minutes in water that contains a little salt, olive oil and lemon juice. When cooked, turn the artichokes upside down to drain on a plate or a tray.
To eat them, pull off each leaf separately and dip the stalk end into the melted butter or the vinaigrette, scraping off the fleshy base between the teeth. Eventually you will come to the heart of the artichoke and will see the hairy choke. Scoop it out with a small spoon and discard. The heart or base is all flesh and is eaten last of all.
In friends’ homes I have been served artichokes done like this, but without any previous trimming. It was most primitive and not my idea of fun way of eating artichokes. I prefer to get rid of all those tough inedible leaves in the kitchen and not at the dining table.
When prepared as described above, artichokes can then be batter-fried, baked, braised, stuffed or puréed, and served as an accompanying vegetable. There are so many ways of serving this nutty-flavoured veggie that it is difficult to understand why many people think of it as an acquired taste. But the artichoke has to go through another stage of preparation before you can try some of these other recipes.
Before you start the preparation you must have at hand two halves of a juicy lemon for rubbing all cut surfaces immediately. This stops them from oxidising and turning black. You will also need a large bowl of water acidulated with lemon juice. Any sliced artichokes go into this water, which also helps to keep them white.
Having prepared the base as described above, slice off more than half of the leaves from the top. This seems like a tremendous waste, but it isn’t because these leaves are inedible.
Quickly pull off all the dark green tough leaves until you come to the pale ones — they are tender and edible. If necessary trim off a bit more from the top because in your finished dish you do not want any tough inedible leaves. It’s at this point that even some professional cooks go wrong, trying to keep as many leaves as possible. They end up using stringy bits — and that is a huge no-no.
As you pull off the leaves and trim, keep rubbing the artichoke with a lemon half. By this time the choke will be visible and you can extract it by going round the interior with the point of sharp knife. You can also use a grapefruit knife, as its slightly curved blade is ideal for this little job. The choke can also be scooped out with a small spoon.
You are now left with the artichoke heart. Rub it well with a lemon half and pop it into the bowl of acidulated water and prepare the others.
The artichoke hearts can be cooked whole or sliced, depending on the recipe you are using. Whole ones need about 12-20 minutes’ simmering depending on how large they are. You must always be careful not to overcook them. All artichoke connoisseurs would rather have them slightly underdone than mushily soft. Always add a little salt and lemon juice to the cooking water.
When prepared like this, artichokes are ideal for stuffing. You can use finely chopped fish or meat or finely minced mushrooms sautéed in butter — or any other ingredients you fancy.
The stuffed artichokes can be finished off in the oven with a thinnish bechamel, fresh tomato sauce, or some thickish cream perfumed with fresh herbs of your choice.
A Mediterranean way of doing whole but unstuffed artichokes is to simmer them in a saucepan with a glass each of white wine, virgen extra olive oil and water. Simmer them, uncovered, until the wine and water have evaporated — 15-25 minutes depending on size.
About five minutes before the evaporation is completed, stir in some finely chopped garlic and freshly milled black pepper to taste. They can be eaten hot or cold but are best cold as a simple starter or as part of a selection of appetisers.
Mallorcans are extremely fond of artichokes and use them in classic dishes such as frito mallorquín and sopes mallorquines. Another favourite island way of using the prepared artichokes fully shorn of their tough leaves, is to slice them a little thicker than a €1 coin, lubricate them well with virgen extra olive oil and finish them off on a hot plate or in a cast iron frying pan.
Used all over Spain
This method is known as ‘a la plancha’ and it is essential that the sliced artichokes are done over a very high heat for only 20 seconds on each side. They are sprinkled with Maldon salt flakes and freshly milled black pepper.
Some people also add a few drops of lemon juice.
This is a popular dish at some of the up-market places in the centre of Palma, and although restaurant cooks do a very nice job of a la plancha artichokes, most Mallorcans I know always complain about the price. They would be better doing them at home. It’s a simple dish and you’ll do it well as long a you use a proper plancha or a cast-iron frying pan brought to an extremely high temperature over a high heat.
Mallorcan cooks also make excellent stuffed artichokes, using minced fish, shellfish or meat for the fillings. If you come across them in a restaurant do give them a try. They go under the name of ‘alcachofas rellenas’.
Artichokes are also used all over Spain, either on their own or as an integral part of another dish. In Cantabria you’ll find a dish called ‘menestra de cordero con alcachofas’: nuggets of shoulder of lamb cooked with roughly sliced onions, wedges of artichoke hearts, peas, tiny potatoes and hard-boiled eggs, everything seasoned with black pepper, paprika (pimentón dulce), lemon and a couple of bay leaves.
Valencians do ‘alcachofas en escabeche’ by parboiling the prepared hearts and then sautéing them in virgen extra olive oil with three bay leaves. Three plump garlic cloves (or to taste) are pounded to a paste in a mortar with coarse sea salt and red wine vinegar and the mixture is stirred into the artichokes. The dish is simmered for three or four minutes. Can be eaten hot but it is better at room temperature.
The Basques have been having an on-going love affair with the artichoke for longer than most of us. They like them stuffed with minced meat and served hot, but they also do them with vegetable stuffings and serve them cold.
One of the cold dishes is ‘fondos de alcachofas a la vasca’, ‘fondo’ being the Spanish word for base or, in this case, the heart of the artichoke. Cooked artichoke hearts are filled with chopped raw tomatoes, green peppers and mushrooms. The stuffed artichokes are presented on a bed of finely shredded lettuce leaves and a simple vinaigrette is served separately so that each diner can dress the stuffed artichokes to taste.
The people of Navarra are also much enamoured of artichokes and they do them in a variety of simple and interesting ways. In ‘alcachofas a la Navarra’ the prepared hearts are first simmered in water for two minutes and then sautéed in virgen extra olive oil with finely minced garlic and slivers of Iberian cured ham. They are then sprinkled with a little sieved flour, moistened with a glass of the cooking liquid, simmered for 8-10 minutes and served very hot.
Artichokes are very much a seasonal vegetable and good up-market restaurants such as Los Rafaeles in Paseo Mallorca never have them on the menu except between September and May.
So now’s the time to order them in restaurants — and to buy them at the market and do them at home.