Wednesday, November 3, 2010

How to eat an artichoke

I came to artichokes like I came to babies: ignorant, and full of trepidation.

The first time round, having a baby seemed like a nice idea, if a little weird. But as my belly grew and grew, I began to get anxious. I realised I didn't have a clue how to care for one. I didn't know anyone with a newborn; I didn't know who to ask. Until I had my own, I never held a baby, and I learned everything I needed to know from books and professionals. It was a bit hit and miss there for a while, but somehow we muddled through – and now I'm quite baby-mad!

Similarly, I never ate a fresh artichoke until I grew my own. There was a certain gap in the garden. The soil was dry; the other plants in the bed were silvery-grey; and I needed something that would grow quick and fast. So I planted an artichoke. It shot up and out and filled the space, just as I had hoped. But as for eating the things...

Well, last year, I felt anxious. I dithered, and picked the artichokes late; they were tough and tasteless and the choke was full of fluff.

This year I am better prepared, more confident. The other night I wandered out with a knife and cut seven tight buds from the plant, gloating all the while; then I cooked them up for dinner.

I served them with warm melted butter flecked with parsley. My husband and I ate our artichokes with gusto, dipping leaves into the butter, slurping and sucking, and letting the juice run down our chins. Had we not had three young squabbling children present, only one of whom would try their artichoke – the same child who later sent the other four members of the family berserk so that there was a great deal of screaming and no songs at bedtime – the experience might have been quite erotic. Alas, my friends, that is the story of my life.


O heart weighed down by so many wings

Quite so. Thank you, Joseph Hutchison (as quoted in Ted Kooser's delightful book The Poetry Home Repair Manual).

Just Artichokes

- artichokes
- a lemon
- a bay leaf
- salt
- a great knob of butter
- a few stalks of flat-leaf parsley

Bring a large nonreactive pot of water to the boil. (An aluminium pot will discolour the artichokes and itself.)

Prepare the artichokes by slicing off the top quarter or so of the head, and rubbing the cut surface with lemon juice. Remove the bottom two rows of leaves, and rub those surfaces with lemon, too. Leave at least 10 cm of stalk, as the inside of the stalk is delicious.

Salt the water and throw in a bay leaf or two. Drop the artichokes into the pot. Weigh down with a curved pot lid or plate to keep submerged, and boil for 20 minutes, or until tender.

Chop the parsley finely. Melt the butter, and stir in the parsley.

When the artichokes are done, remove from the pot and leave upside down for a minute to drain.

Serve. To eat, tear off the leaves one by one, dip them into the butter, and, using your front teeth, scrape the morsel of flesh from the base of the leaf into your mouth. Rip open the stalk, and pull out the tender strip. Dip it, and eat. When you get to the heart, peer at it. If it's hairy, discard it. If it's young and tight and smooth, as once were we all, demolish the lot, smacking your lips and sighing with pleasure from time to time.

Many books describe how to prepare an artichoke in great detail. See, for example, Maggie's Harvest by Maggie Beer, or The Cook's Companion by Stephanie Alexander. Maggie suggests cooking the artichokes with bay leaves; Stephanie, serving them with parsley butter.

(Exceedingly local: artichokes, lemon, bay leaves, parsley. Not particularly local: butter, salt.)


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