Thursday, 24 September 2009

Secret Artichoke Business

"It is good for a man to eat thistles and to remember that he is an ass”
So wrote E.S Dallas in Kettner’s Book of the table 1877.
“But the artichoke” he continued “is the best of thistles, and the man who enjoys it has the satisfaction of feeling that he is an ass of taste.”

We’re talking globe artichoke here, Cynara Scolymus not the equally delicious tuber Jerusalem artichoke Helianthus tuberosus often dubbed the fartychoke for its antisocial properties. To add to the confusion there is also the Chinese artichoke Stachys Sieboldii another edible tuber of the mint family.
Globe artichokes have been relegated to the too hard basket of many home cooks for too long.
Don’t be intimidated they are versatile, easy to prepare and have a very different flavour to the jars of preserved artichoke hearts available in the deli.
A good way to learn how to use an artichoke is to grow one, where the full cycle of culinary possibility is revealed.
They are not difficult to grow; it’s a thistle after all.
Artichokes arrived with the first fleet and were planted on Norfolk Island.
Victoria with a long cool growing period provides the ideal climate for this splendid architectural addition to the perennial border or vegetable garden and grows 90% of commercial crops. Ironically Sydney where they are harder to grow has the highest demand.
Most local varieties originate from the Green Globe; the shape can vary between spherical, ovoid or cylindrical. There are also pointy purple Roman varieties available.
At first large leaves emerge with a strong central flower stalk crowned by what the Italians have affectionately named ‘la mamma’ the largest flower head. As the plant matures, smaller heads the figli or children develop between the leaves down to the tiny the nipoti or nephews the size of a small coin. Commercial crops only concentrate on the matriarch, with the little ones considered too costly to harvest.
Modern commercial varieties such as Global Star mature early and are used as an annual increasing the market value. These are often protected by Plant Variety Rights that require the growers to pay a royalty to the owners of the rights. The concept of P.V.R. is getting a little scary because we have the ppotential to loose good flavoursome cultivars to an increasingly homogenised market.
Whether at the market or in the garden play close attention to the heads, they should have a pleasant distinctive aroma, a sign of being freshly picked. Tightly formed, firm, heavy without a bump on the side, a telltale sign that the hairy choke or immature flower has started to form. At this stage they may be eaten raw with the outer leaves removed. Leave about 15 centimetres of stalk attached, peel it and the core of the stalk reveals a creamy white often-discarded bonus of pure artichoke bliss.
Most of the bitterness is in the stringy skin and outer leaves so don’t lick your fingers after preparation.
As the flower bud matures another seldom seen speciality is revealed, the large solid base or fond often described in classical french recipes. Summer irrigated crops yield the largest bases. These provide a natural container to hold your favourite toppings.
When the plant has finished budding, cut it back to ground level and about 3 new plants will emerge. Divide the plant with a bit of the base root attached and before you know it you will have enough to share and swap with your neighbours.
Artichokes contain a compound Cynarin that for about 70% of us makes the taste of what follows sweeter for a short time. Cynarin also has many medicinal properties including the lowering of cholesterol. Avoid serving artichokes at wine tastings, as they will alter the taste. Frying reduces this effect.
Cynar the Italian aperitif made from globe artichokes makes a good change for those that love Campari or other bitter drinks.
Cardoons Scolymus Cardunculus a close relative to the globe artichoke is another neglected vegetable grown mainly for the large blanched stalks. They need to be peeled unless very young. In Spain the small spiny heads are used as a substitute for rennet in cheese making.

Remove the layers of tough outer leaves, trim the top, peel the stalk and rub with lemon. This is common to most recipes.

If they have the telltale bump indicating a choke, cook them in your preferred way first and then cut them in half to reveal the hairy choke: Now softened, the choke is easy to remove with a knife or spoon.

For very young ones only. Remove the outer leaves peel the stalk and finely slice them. Dress with your best olive oil, lemon juice, sea-salt and freshly ground pepper. They make a delicious salad with Parmigiano Reggiano young raw broad beans and radicchio conveniently also in season.
After cleaning, cook them for about 10 minutes in plenty of unsalted water to which you have added the juice and squeezed body of a couple of lemons. Place a plate on top to keep them under water this stops them from discolouring. A skewer will easily pierce them when cooked. Toss in a vinaigrette to stop further discolouration.
They marry well with olives, capers and garlic or perhaps preserved lemon and samphire.
Clean as above and press gently to open the flower heads. Fry the whole flower and stalk at about 140oC for about 3 minutes in olive oil. Remove. Just before serving sprinkle with a little water to and turn the oil up to about 180oC. Fry again till the outer leaves are crisp and the centre is soft to a sharp skewer. Be careful they can splash hot oil. Drain onto kitchen paper and serve immediately with a spiced salt. A speciality from the old Jewish quarter in Rome.
Castroville in California is the undisputed Artichoke capital of North America. Roadhouse specials featuring ‘Choke Chips’ the deep-fried stalks abound. The annual artichoke festival is held each May. In 1949 a young starlet Marilyn Monroe was crowned the first artichoke queen. Castroville has never recovered from the visit with Busby Berkley-like artichoke formations of Marilyn look-alikes gracing the parade.
Clean as above, cut the stalk off at the base and gently open up the flower heads. Lightly stuff with a mixture of parsley, lemon rind, garlic and soft seasoned breadcrumbs. Drizzle with vinaigrette made with a fine olive oil, add the stalks to the tray and braise tightly covered in a moderate oven for about 30 minutes. Remove the cover, baste with the pan juices and cook with the cover off for 10 minutes to crisp the tops. As your confidence grows vary the fillings but use restraint, it is the artichoke that should shine.
Over Hot Coals
A Sicilian speciality. Choose large heads but do not remove the outer leaves.
Cut across the top removing the top 2cm, and remove the stalk. Gently open the flower heads, brush with lemon juice or white wine and insert a mixture of garlic, oregano, salt and pepper between the leaves. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and when the barbeque coals have died down to a gentle glow, place them directly into the coals cut side up until the outer leaves are completely charred. To eat them discard the burned outer leaves and enjoy the tender smoky bottoms of the remaining leaves.
For the Base or Fond
Best at the end of the season when the bases are quite large, about the size of a saucer. Slice and discard the top half, cook in more heavily acidulated water with the mandatory plate on top to keep them submerged. They are done when a skewer easily pierces through the base. [about 25 mins] Cool slightly and peel away the top, choke and stringy skin of the base. They will all be soft enough to gently remove. Brush with lemon juice and olive oil. Season and top with waxy potatoes roasted with garlic, a poached egg and Taleggio or perhaps fungi.
For Risotto
They can be sautéed raw at the beginning with the shallots releasing the most flavour or they can be added cooked halfway through the preparation.
Once the beautiful deep mauve flowers have started to appear they belong in a vase.

Spare a thought for *artichokes
They haven’t many chums
Most people go for sparrowgrass
Or exotic fancy plums.

*Apologies to Rhubarb and the unknown poet.

I wrote this for The Age about 2006?


Zoe said...

Please tell me more about that tart pictured there!

We have a bed of beautiful purple Italian artichoke, but it won't be bearing for a while yet. Hate waiting ...

Sunnybrae and all who sail in her said...

Hi Zoe, the tart was a quick staff lunch with a bit of left-over pastry, braised fennel and cooked artichokes; it was a treat.
Also an opshop tragic.

stickyfingers said...

Thanks for this, I've always been intimidated by artichokes but think I could brave buying a few at the farmers mrkets now. I noticed that your area got 22mm of rain this week - the vegie garden must be loving it )) Can't wait to go for the mid prandial stroll again.

Sunnybrae and all who sail in her said...

Hi Ms Sticky, yes rain has been great Madame bogged the mower in the veggie patch, bring gumboots.

Thermomixer said...

Artichokes and Sunnybrae - a long time match. can't wait. Love them, but buying them can be disappointing. MrsT knew that I loved them & brought home 2 meagre specimens - asked her what was she going to eat? Not a good move.

I think braised in the wood oven sounds good - yum

Life should be more buyant thanks to the great Catters!!

Sunnybrae and all who sail in her said...

What a great game, 3 plants should be enough so plant some? I'll get you then plants.

Sunnybrae and all who sail in her said...

Sorry Steve Pressed the wrong button and deleted the post below.
Try again...

steve has left a new comment on your post "Secret Artichoke Business":

Hi George-xlnt post as per usual. I worked for a greek family in Adelaide who regularly foraged for wild artichokes in the hills. The patriarch of the family would come into the kitchen with a bag full of 'em, his fingers calloused & torn from the effort. I was schooled in a dish that I still love to theis day. Aginaros e Khukia(forgive the spelling please Mr Colombaris)It was a simple dish og broad beans & artichokes flavored with garlic(of course) Olive oil, salt & mint. Embellished with a squeeze of lemon, some crumbled fetta & you have got yourself a GO dish- I love them so much. Why is it I gravitate toward the more 'prickly' & 'hard to get to know' fruit & vege?

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Posted by steve to Sunnybrae Restaurant and Cooking School at 28 September 2009 9:13 PM

Cardoons [I think thats what the wild? artichokes are] grow more vigorously and are part of a culture of foraging for food when we are hungry. Not many of us
[bloggers that is] know what real hunger is. We here compost turnip tops, beet leaves, lots of cabbage bits, much of what we discard to compost is fine nourishing food.
But many restaurants also love to use simple weeds as peasant dishes that make us feel rustic, often at very high prices. Margaret Visser explained why we go for the hard to get in a keynote address at the Symposium of gastronomy in Geelong about 18 years ago. The balance between the neophilliac and the neophobiac in all of us.
Also the foraging urge is strong and loves to find a wild free reward.
I get a giggle when high profile rechrche places feature the less than tasty forms of some wild weeds
and get away with it.

28 September 2009 9:58 PM

Thermomixer said...
Somehow the artichokes and mongoes have become intermingled, but that won't stop me.

It would be great for the landholders along the Calder if the foraging chefs decided to put cardoons (artichoke thistles) on the menu, and explain where they got them.

Like Steve - broad beans with artichokes is a favourite dish. The ex had the dish in Crete and bought a cookbook with the recipe. It is divine - can't wait for my bbs to produce a decent crop.

Not sure about the economics of chefs and staff from restaurants foraging. If nonno and nonna have nothing else to do, Ok Or, if patrons wish to provide some foraged produce (and also patronise the establishment - good point Steve) then that's fair.

Mushrooms, blackberries, weeds - any frebies - love em

28 September 2009 10:48 PM