Know your artichokes
The first time I went to Italy I was determined to go to Padova (Padua) the smallish university town on the mainland near Venice. The reason I wanted to go there was because I had heard the produce market was one of the best In Italy.
It was and one of the things that I had never seen before were artichokes in all shapes and sizes — and at varying degrees of preparation — for sale in the many stalls. There were small purple artichokes with a pointed top the stallholders had conveniently peeled ready to be cooked whole, sold in a plastic bag of water with lemon juice in it to stop them going brown. There were larger ones like the ones we get here, and the various colours and shapes were an eye-opener for me.
In New Zealand we still only get a shortish season for artichokes and I have only ever seen the large purple tinged green globe variety. Artichokes don’t enjoy the popularity here that they do in Europe. One hopes this will change.
Artichokes belong to the thistle family and were developed from the thistle-like cardoon, probably in North Africa, after which they moved around the Mediterranean and north via Spain. They reached Italy in the 12th century.
All European languages get their word for artichoke from the medieval Arab word “kharsuf” which gives us the Italian “carciofo” and the Spanish “alcachofa”. They do not grow wild so they were the result of the Arab genius for gardening.
Artichokes have “bracts” rather than leaves and the inside of the bottom of each bract has edible flesh as does the heart, but not the hairy choke (a mass of immature florets in the middle of the artichoke) which needs to be discarded. With small artichokes, which are often young enough to have little or no choke, the whole thing — often including some of the tender stem — is cooked and eaten.
The famous Roman-Jewish dish of deep fried artichokes is one I have enjoyed many times and is made with whole flattened young artichokes fried to a golden brown.
Choose globe artichokes that feel heavy and with closed bracts that are just starting to separate. Avoid any with insect damage such as small holes. Brown spots may simply be frost damage and won’t affect the artichoke.
Preparing artichokes can be a labour of love but they are easier to deal with if boiled for about 40 minutes, or until a small knife easily penetrates the heart and the bottom bracts are easily pulled off. The French eat large boiled globe artichokes with their fingers. Each bract is scraped with the teeth to remove the flesh until you get to the heart. A well-flavoured vinaigrette or hollandaise sauce are the classic French accompaniments of choice for dipping. Before boiling, wash the artichokes, cut the top third of the bracts off with a large knife, scoop out the hairy choke with a teaspoon and slice the bottom flat so it will sit up on a plate. You can peel the stem, boil it and eat that too, if you desire. Small tender young artichokes can be sliced or cut into wedges then fried or added raw and thinly sliced to salads.
Wine with that?
According to food writer Harold McGee, artichokes contain phenolic compounds. One called cynarin has the strange effect of inhibiting the taste receptors in our tastebuds and making food eaten after a bite of artichoke, taste sweet. Because they have this flavour distorting effect they can be problematical when matching with wine.
See our artichoke collection for recipes using fresh or preserved artichokes.