Eat your heart out

Get beyond its spikey exterior and the globe artichoke is meltingly moreish - and messily intimate. Mark Hix reveals all
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Globe artichokes appear like one of the last things on earth you'd think of eating. Unless you were a donkey. They look like thistles. In fact, they are thistles, but this noble vegetable was popular in 16th- and 17th-century Britain, and considered an aphrodisiac. There again, most foods are if you put your mind to it.

Globe artichokes appear like one of the last things on earth you'd think of eating. Unless you were a donkey. They look like thistles. In fact, they are thistles, but this noble vegetable was popular in 16th- and 17th-century Britain, and considered an aphrodisiac. There again, most foods are if you put your mind to it.

Despite their unpromising appearance, indulging in a gourmet thistle is a romantic business. All you have to do is cook them whole, and plonk on a table. Like most sophisticated things they don't need much done to them, but the art is in the eating. And because they're messy to eat it means forgetting your table manners and your inhibitions. I'm talking about dismantling them with the fingers, tearing off the leaves, dunking into an appropriate sauce and devouring the fleshy base of each. Then there's the secret, tender heart, hidden beneath the fluffy choke, to feast on. The novice artichoke eater must be initiated, otherwise they may not get this far.

Ever since I got hooked on the whole artichoke thing in my early twenties in Spain, I haven't been able to resist putting them in my shopping basket. Especially if I have company. Originally I'd learnt the classical kitchen way of "turning" them: trimming back and chucking out the leaves and picking out the choke. All that was left was the flat, fleshy delicious heart, ready to be stuffed or turned into salads. Now I appreciate the different ways of preparing and serving artichokes of all sizes. But especially the minimal preparation method where you cook the artichoke whole and leave the dismembering to your guests.

To cook whole large artichokes this way takes 20-30 minutes in a pan half-filled with water and about a tablespoon of salt. Break the stalks away from the heads to pull out any fibrous strands, and put the artichokes into the boiling water, weighing them down with a smaller lid or heatprooof plate; leave the lid on, so they cook evenly. Drain them upside down. That's all it takes, and they're ready to eat hot with melted butter or cool with vinaigrette.

If you're preparing artichoke hearts for recipes like the rabbit dish below you'll have to turn them, trimming off the leaves and the hairy choke to leave a tidy fleshy base. These must be cooked immediately or rubbed with lemon and put in a bowl of acidulated water straightaway or they discolour. I've discovered that the best results come from cooking them the Italian way, in water with salt, lemon juice, rosemary, garlic, olive oil, and occasionally white wine. When the hearts are tender to the point of a knife, leave them to cool in the liquor and the flavour will improve. Follow these guidelines when you cook the artichoke hearts to go with the rabbit legs, and for whole baby artichokes.

Baby artichokes haven't yet developed a choke and the inside can be tender enough to eat raw, as in the recipe below. If you're cooking baby artichokes you'll have to remove the tough outer leaves, trim off the pointed tops of the remaining leaves, and peel the fibrous outside of the stem. You'll be left with the heart and sweet inner leaves to be cooked in the aromatic Italian liquor to make them even sweeter and softer.

We think of artichokes as Mediterranean, but in fact they grow well in Britain too, and used to be popular with Renaissance gardeners. In Italy, there are several different varieties; here we're not that spoilt for choice. Apart from the big-headed globe, you can also enjoy their little relatives, sometimes known as violet or poivrade artichokes and often used in antipasto. These often come pre-prepared and cooked, in delis, but can taste vinegary.

If you have a large garden and you like a wild-looking vegetable patch, then you could plant some artichokes. The first year they grow a single crown and after that, each plant will produce three or four nice crowns. The two common types are the 'Gros Camus de Bretagne' or Brittany artichokes, and the 'Gros Vert de Lâon'.

Roasted baby artichokes with rosemary

Serves 4

When they are at their best, baby artichokes are just delicious. They need to be firm and if they are beginning to open it's too late to cook them like this. First you'll need to prepare them, trimming away all the tough outer leaves and 1cm off the tops, and peeling the stalks to leave the tender inside. Then cook in a pan with enough water to cover them, adding the juice of 2 lemons, a few sprigs of rosemary, 3 cloves of garlic, peeled, 3 tbsp olive oil, salt and freshly ground black pepper.

Simmer for 10-15 minutes until the artichokes are tender to the point of a knife. Cool in the liquor.
12 firm baby artichokes, cooked as above and drained
A few sprigs of rosemary
3-4tbsp olive oil

for the dressing

10 black olives, stoned and finely chopped
40g mi-cuit or sun-blushed tomatoes, finely chopped
Olive oil from cooking, plus some more if necessary
4tsp balsamic vinegar
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat the oven to 200ºC/ 400ºF/Gas mark 6. Heat the olive oil in a roasting tray, season the artichokes with salt and pepper and roast f them for 10-15 minutes with the rosemary, turning them every so often until lightly coloured. Remove from the roasting tray, drain off the oil and reserve.

Meanwhile, mix all the ingredients for the dressing using the oil from roasting and season with salt and pepper. You should have enough dressing to spoon a couple of tablespoons on each portion. If not add more olive oil.

Arrange three artichokes on each plate and spoon over the dressing.

Shaved artichokes with Pecorino

Serves 4

Young, tender artichokes that haven't yet formed a choke (the furry bit in the middle) should be used for this dish. How much needs to be trimmed will vary according to the tenderness of the leaves, and as you're serving them raw they do need to be really tender. Try to find aged Pecorino Romano for this dish but if you can't, Parmesan will make a good substitute.

8 tender baby artichokes
30-40g wild or ordinary rocket
40-50g Pecorino Romano
Juice of half a lemon
5-6tbsp olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

If the stalks of the artichoke are firm just trim a little from the end and peel them with a sharp knife or peeler. Cut 1cm or 2cm from the top with a serrated knife and pull away the leaves until you get to the tender, pale-coloured ones. Once you've got rid of all fibrous parts, with a very sharp knife or a Japanese mandolin slice the artichokes as thinly as possible and put the slices into a bowl with the olive oil and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Stir them well and leave for 4-5 minutes.

Arrange the rocket leaves on a plate and scatter the artichoke slices over. With a peeler or sharp knife, shave the Pecorino over the top.

Papardelle with chicken livers and artichokes

Serves 4

250g papardelle
6 baby artichokes, prepared and cooked as for the roast baby artichokes
150g chicken livers, cleaned
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
Olive oil for frying
50ml of Marsala or Madeira
100ml chicken stock
200ml double cream
1tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the olive oil in a frying pan, season and sauté the chicken livers for about a minute on each side then remove from the pan and transfer to a plate. Add a little more oil to the pan and gently cook the shallots and garlic for a couple of minutes until soft. Add the Marsala and chicken stock and simmer until reduced by two-thirds.

Meanwhile cook the papardelle according to the instructions on the packet and drain in a colander. Add the cream to the stock, bring back to the boil and continue simmering until the sauce has reduced by about half and thickened. Slice the artichokes and add to the sauce with the chicken livers and parsley, season with salt and pepper and simmer for a minute just to re-heat the livers. Toss the pasta with the sauce, season if necessary and serve at once.

Rabbit with artichoke and summer girolles

Serves 4

If you are a bit squeamish about those little bunnies hanging up in the butchers then try these French-farmed rabbits. In fact they are farming them here now and they are extremely meaty and not as gamey as wild ones. Scottish girolles, yes Scottish, are now well in season and very good too. They marry perfectly with artichokes, and with rabbit come to that, for an all-in earthy experience.

4 large farmed rabbit legs
Olive oil for grilling
100g butter
2 shallots, peeled and finely chopped
2 cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed
Half a glass of white wine
150ml chicken stock
250g girolles, cleaned
4 medium-sized globe artichoke hearts, cooked and quartered
1tbsp chopped parsley
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pre-heat a ribbed griddle pan, barbecue or grill. Season the rabbit legs with salt and pepper, lightly oil them and grill for 6-7 minutes on each side. They should be moist in the middle, but check with a knife or skewer that they're properly cooked.

Meanwhile gently cook the shallots and garlic in 50g of the butter for 2-3 minutes until soft. Add the girolles and continue to cook for another 3-4 minutes, giving the occasional stir until they soften. Remove from the heat and transfer the shallots and girolles to a bowl or plate. Add the wine to the same pan and boil until it has reduced completely, then add the chicken stock and reduce it by two-thirds. Return the girolles to the sauce with the artichokes and parsley and simmer until the sauce begins to thicken. Add the butter and stir until melted. Serve the rabbit legs, ideally on some mashed potato with the sauce spooned over. E

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