Artichokes: Try some global treats

THE globe artichoke, a thistle-like tender perennial that reaches three to four feet in height and width, is grown for its flower buds, which are eaten before they begin to open, writes Emma Crowhurst.

Since it is tender and reacts poorly to cold weather, sadly it is not for all gardens.

When I work at Helmingham Hall we always have a walk around the gardens to collect any produce head gardener Roy Balaam has for us. I always look for the cardoons and artichokes. They are one of my favourite plants and vegetables to eat and prepare.

My first restaurant job as a little commis chef was at a place in West Hampstead called Capability Brown, after the famous landscape gardener, aptly enough. Here I was taught many new skills, one of which was the preparation and cooking of artichokes. I now have a successful artichoke in my own garden and although it doesn’t have the height and breadth of the Helmingham ones, I am thrilled to have grown it myself.

Most people are slightly put off by the leathery leaves, the tough stalk and the hairy choke – if they get that far. It certainly is an unusual vegetable. There are about 50 different types and they are not related at all to the Jerusalem artichoke, except that they are both members of the daisy family. It originates in southern Europe, where modern globe artichoke cultivation is concentrated in the countries bordering the Mediterranean basin. The main European producers are Italy, Spain and France.

It has beautiful, silvery, curved leaves and the flowers sit on thick, ribbed stalks. The large heads have the thistle-like fronds in deep purple. The silver and purple colour palette is well matched and the artichoke is a perfect example of nature in top form. The edible part is well concealed inside the spiky globe and each tough leaf has its foot embedded in the heart.

In season from May to November, depending on where you live, like most vegetables they are best eaten young before the actual flowers develop too fully. I leave a few to bring colour and eat the other one!

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Really tiny ones are marinated whole and are then bottled, while hearts can be bought tinned or from the deli counter already flavoured in olive oil and garlic. Delicious served as a starter or in a risotto or pasta. At Leith’s Restaurant we used to make the most fabulous artichoke heart and green olive pie in the style of a gateau Pithivers.

Buying Artichokes

Choose globes that are dark green, heavy, and have “tight” leaves. Don’t select globes that are dry-looking or appear to be turning brown. If the leaves appear too “open”, then the choke is past its prime. You can still eat them, but the leaves may be tough. (Don’t throw these away - you can always make artichoke soup.)

To prepare the artichoke, bring a large pan of water to the boil and add two teaspoons of salt.

Wash the artichokes well; break off the stalk by leaning heavily on it and holding the artichoke firmly. Cut the top off with a serrated knife to a depth of about an inch and level off the stalk end so it will sit nicely. Place straight into the water and simmer until tender. Use a lid or plate to keep the artichoke under the water.

Some chefs like to add lemon to the water, in the form of a squeeze or a slice. I have cooked it with and without lemon and it still loses some of the nice green hue cooked either way.

Test them as described in the recipe and leave to drain and cool. Follow the directions as to how to remove the inner leaves and choke. For the souffl�, ensure that you prepare them carefully so they do not fall apart.

The classic ways to serve an artichoke are with melted butter, French dressing or hollandaise sauce. The artichoke is served warm and drizzled with the chosen sauce; the sauce may also be served apart. In this case you break off the leaves and dip the thicker end (that will have a tiny portion of the heart at its base) into the sauce. You then run the end over your bottom teeth to strip the flesh from the leaf.

Any sauce you serve should be well-flavoured as the heart, although distinctive, is not highly flavoured. Once the leaves are removed you then eat the heart with a knife and fork. The use of a finger bowl is essential for the service of an artichoke. When I serve the cheese souffl� inside an artichoke, the cooking time is a little longer than a souffl� cooked in a ramekin as the leaves don’t conduct the heat. The guest eats the souffl� with the leaves and then eats the heart with cutlery!

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