How not to eat artichokes
Let’s talk about eating artichokes. Or perhaps we should start with discussing how not to eat artichokes. I’ll illustrate what I mean with a short anecdote, which I hope you’ll enjoy. I certainly do. It concerns a certain uncle of mine, who I am assuming won’t mind me sharing the story, but just in case we’ll disguise his identity and give him a code name: Uncle M (unbreakable, I know). Years ago Uncle M was out for dinner with colleagues at a fancy restaurant. Feeling adventurous he ordered the globe artichoke and was presented with a beautifully cooked whole artichoke. Having never eaten a whole artichoke before, Uncle M was a little bemused as to how to tackle the large, leafy vegetable, but not wanting to reveal his ignorance to his fellow diners and the waiter he grabbed a knife and fork and launched a full frontal attacked with gusto. Uncle M was immediately surprised by the toughness of the outer leaves, but by now, chewing away on the first of them, it was too late and there was nothing for it but to soldier on. By the end of the meal, outer leaves, choke and all, Uncle M had concluded that he categorically, without a doubt, did not like artichokes. In fact, it was a mystery to him why anyone on earth did like artichokes. Now, if you’ve ever eaten globe artichokes before you will already be chuckling to yourself superiorly at Uncle M’s expense. If you’ve never eaten them before, you may already have guessed that they should not be eaten in their entirety. The outer leaves are very tough and only hold a small amount of “meat” at the bottom. Indeed, most of them are tipped with an extremely sharp spike. Furthermore, once the leaves have been removed, but before the heart is reached, there is a small “choke” made up of a thin layer of hundreds of tiny bristles. By this point, even if you are completely unfamiliar with artichokes, I’m sure you can appreciate the unfortunate plight of Uncle M. Not an enjoyable experience or one that he will ever care to repeat, but it has certainly provided many laughs at the Christmas dinner table.
I’m actually not sure whether Uncle M’s initial artichoke experience put him off them for life, but if it did then it’s truly a shame. Artichokes are not only delicious, with a rich, savoury, earthy flavour, but when eaten correctly they are so much fun. As kids we would be extremely excited when dad came home from the allotment with a bowl full of artichokes and the promise of a tasty, interactive dinner with lashings of butter. If you’ve never tried artichokes before, or never cooked them yourself, I am encouraging you to do so right now. They might seem fiddly, or even daunting, but you will reap the rewards when it comes to eating. Artichokes are coming into season as we speak and I’ve seen them in the green grocers for a pound a globe. So if you see them the next time you’re at the shops pick up a couple and treat yourself to the best summer starter or the perfect dish as part of a summer spread.
How to prepare and cook artichokes
Despite their uncompromising look, artichokes are actually a very versatile vegetable. In restaurants, and on tv, you often see artichokes stripped and chopped back to the “heart” – the chunk of meaty vegetable at the base of the flower. This can be used in any number of dishes, from dips to the Provençal classic Artichokes à la Barigoule to La Vignarola, which I blogged about a few weeks ago. Artichokes can also be eaten raw, with most of the outer leaves chopped back and rest thinly sliced. We were first introduced to raw artichoke in Italy by a friend of my dad’s and were immediate converts (again, as kids one of our favourite summer dishes was a pile of assorted chopped vegetables with individual pots of oil and vinegar to dip – a really great way to get kids eating their veggies!).
These are all delicious ways to enjoy artichokes, but to me it seems a shame to waste so much of the taste and entertainment from the outer leaves. The method I’m going to show you today is simply to boil the artichokes until tender, and then enjoy them in (almost) their entirety with a choice of dips.
Before boiling, you’ll need to do a little preparation. If your artichokes are organic or, even better, home-grown then you will probably want to soak them in salted water for about an hour to remove any tiny bugs that may be making a home inside the leaves. Of course, if you adhere to the old dad-ism of “a bit of extra protein never hurt anyone” then you can skip this step, but personally I’m just a bit too squeamish. So here we have step one:
1. Place the artichokes in a large bowl of salted water, weigh down with a plate if necessary and leave for one hour. Remove, shake dry and store in the fridge if you are not cooking with them immediately.
2. Cut the stalk right back to the base of the globe and use scissors or a sharp knife to remove the very outer leaves, so you are left with tight leaves in a perfect round shape.
3. Bring a large pan of heavily salted water to the boil and drop the artichokes in. The cooking time will depend on the freshness of the artichoke and how large it is. A very large artichoke can take 20, or even 30, minutes to cook, but smaller ones that have been picked recently will probably only take about 10. The best bet is to be conservative with the initial timing, grab one out the water with tongs or a slotted spoon and test an outer leaf. If the leaf pulls away easily then the artichoke is ready, if not then pop it back in the pot for 5 minutes, and repeat.
Once cooked, remove the artichokes from the water and serve. You will probably want to wait 5 minutes for the artichokes to cool slightly, to avoid any kind of tongue-burning incident.
How to eat artichokes
Now that your artichoke is perfectly cooked we have arrived at the best bit. Arm yourself with your dip of choice. Ross loves the classic of melted butter, but I prefer the sharper continental combination of olive oil and balsamic vinegar (season both to your taste with salt and pepper). If you have the time then I can highly recommend this recipe by the lovely Simon Hopkinson. The rich, but sharp dressing is ideal.
Begin to remove the leaves, dip and use your front teeth to scrape out the tender vegetable from the bottom. At first the leaves will only yield a morsel of artichoke and you will be all like “Yeah right Anna, is this it?”. However, the closer you get to the centre, the more of the leaf you will be able to eat until you can pull out bunches at a time and eat them right up to the spiky tip. And I will be all like “I told you so”.
Hopefully the choke will become obvious, as you reach the base of the artichoke. Use a knife to scrape/cut away the choke and reveal the tender heart underneath. This is all edible, so smother it in butter or oil and chomp it in one go. Done.
I really hope that this post has inspired you to get cooking with artichokes. Thank me later, but while you enjoy them spare a little thought for poor Uncle M.