vegetables | The Proof of the Pudding

Courgette season is still very much underway, as was evidenced by the gigantic courgette that my dad brought home from his allotment this week. With a glut of regular-sized courgettes already in the house, he offered this vegetable goliath to me, and of course I gladly accepted. Such a magnificent beast needed a fitting recipe, and keeping it (essentially) whole seemed like a nice way to cook it.

This recipe was inspired by a dish that lovely friends of ours made at a dinner party a couple of years ago. I didn’t have the exact recipe to hand, so this is a loose interpretation of the original incarnation, but I remembered the inside of the courgette being stuffed back into the filling, I remembered tomatoes being invited to the party, and I remembered two types of cheeses going in there. Let’s be honest, I mainly remembered the two types of cheese. Then garlic had to be added, as it is to basically all of our food in this household, and then a few herbs which work well with both courgettes and tomatoes made an appearance too. Although it may have deviated from the initial recipe we ate a few years ago, I’m very pleased with the results: a vibrant, vegetarian* dish packed with summery tastes. *Excuse the parmesan! Use a substitute if you’re very strictly veggie.

Ingredients (serves 2 as a main course, or 4-6 as a starter) 1 very large courgette 2 large ripe tomatoes 1 tsp oregano 1 tsp dried thyme 1-2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped or crushed Small handful basil leaves, roughly chopped 2 mozzarella balls Small handful grated parmesan Salt and pepper

Good quality olive oil

Method 1. Preheat the oven to 180C fan/200C/Gas Mark 6. 2. Halve the courgette lengthways, so that both halves can sit steadily cut-side up. Use a spoon to scoop out the soft flesh, leaving at least 1-2cm of skin around the outside, but don’t throw away the insides – roughly chop the flesh and place in a large bowl.

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

Globe artichokes growing in my dad’s allotment (photo credit: Dave Price with his swanky new iPhone)

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.

For the last few weeks I have been craving…vegetables. Now, before we fall out, I just want to reassure you that I’m not a total freak and also crave things like pizza, blue cheese, chocolate and salt and vinegar crisps (not all at the same time…probably). But right now, my current craving is for fresh, crisp, colourful veggies. I think it’s because I’m aware that summer is just around the corner, ready to bring with it such glorious presents as lettuce, peas in the pod, asparagus stalks, courgettes and globe artichokes.

One of my absolute favourite food blogs is Manger, written by the exquisite Mimi Thorisson. Literally, exquisite. I haven’t yet made nearly enough of her incredible looking recipes, but each one that I have made has been perfect: rustic, indulgent and utterly scrumptious. I’ve had her spring vegetable stew (La Vignarola) bookmarked for well over 6 months now, and finally had the chance to cook it last week. Unfortunately, in my impatience to make it, I was a little early for the Scottish artichoke and pea season, so I had to improvise with the fresh vegetables that I could get my hands on. Luckily asparagus is already available in abundance here, and our local market store had a large basket of broad beans. It was exciting to cook with lettuce for the first ever time and I completely adored the result. I have to confess that Ross wasn’t convinced, but I’ll put that down to his inferior taste buds…

Ingredients (serves 2-3 as a side dish) Large bag of fresh broad beans in the pod (about 300g podded beans) 1 little gem lettuce 2 spring onions 200g asparagus 1 tsp olive oil 100g pancetta or smoked bacon ½ lemon Small bunch parsley, finely chopped

Small bunch mint, finely chopped

Method 1. Pod the broad beans and set aside for later. I find podding beans and peas truly relaxing. It’s a slow, methodical task that should be savoured and, ideally, done outside perched on the back-door step. As we don’t have a garden I threw open the windows and put the radio on. To my surprise, as I snapped open some of the pods, inside the velvet cocoons were lilac and deep purple beans. I have no idea why this is –the variety of bean, the stage of picking, or something else altogether…if anyone can enlighten me I would love to know!… Quarter the gem lettuce, slice the spring onions and chop the asparagus into chunks.

2. Sauté the pancetta in a little olive oil until starting to crisp.

3. Add the spring onions and continue to fry for 30 seconds.

4. Add the asparagus and broad beans to the pan with 4-6 tbsp water and cook for a few minutes.

5. Nestle the lettuce amongst the other vegetables, cut side down, cover with a lid and cook for 10 minutes or until the vegetables are all tender. You can turn the lettuce half way through if you wish.

6. Sprinkle a little lemon juice over the vegetables and stir through the chopped herbs and some seasoning to taste.

We served this dish as an accompaniment to our lamb shanks with mint sauce. It is the ideal side dish for a spring roast, but is actually generous and tasty enough to be the main event, perhaps served with some soft goats cheese and crusty bread. I think that in the original recipe Mimi served it as a starter, which would be a lovely idea for a special summer meal.

I was blown away by this recipe. The vegetables take centre stage and the last minute addition of lemon juice and herbs brings the dish to life with a zesty, aromatic flavour. I’m hoping to make this recipe many more times this summer, and am especially looking forward to using fresh peas, broad beans and artichokes from dad’s allotment, as the dish was supposed to include. If you’re going to make this recipe yourself, I wouldn’t worry if you can’t find the same vegetables as myself or Mimi – just use the best seasonal vegetables available to you and it will be stunning.