Give me ten kilos of broad beans to painfully pod. Give me fifty bags of onions to tearfully chop. Give me a truckload of King Edwards to peel, wash and boil and then mash, using a solitary masher, a blunt spoon and a dented, leaky saucepan if you like. But never, ever give me an artichoke to prep ever again. I thought that I could take most kitchen activities in my stride, ranging from the mundane to the tongue wigglingly complex but after this week, if I never have to look at an edible thistle again, then I will be a happier and saner man.
The plants have taken off quite nicely actually. The buds are still small but I fully expect them to envelop and engorge with careful watering and sunshine and I reckon by the end of the summer, they should be ready for eating. However, given all the enthusiasm I have exercised into growing them, the one fact remains; I have never prepared one of my own before.
So on Tuesday I popped down to my local famers’ market to buy some, to have a practice and to try out some ideas for supper that night. Now there are lots of instructions and tips out there, in cookbooks and on the internet. In fact, Great British Chefs have produced their very own video on how to prepare a globe artichoke and very easy it looks too. But I found reality to be very different indeed.
I cut into the first artichoke with great relish and almost gay abandon, having sharpened up my little paring knife to a vicious edge. The idea was to create an artichoke cup so I trimmed and trimmed and then I trimmed some more. Trim, trim, trim. Ha, ha, ha! And then I trimmed just a touch more underneath to create a flat base and then bang, revealed the beardy ‘choke’, which meant of course that I had trimmed the bottom right off the bugger. So, into the bin it went.
It all started off so well. Entranced by my neighbour’s patch down the allotment, who have a wondrous clump of artichokes growing on their plot; I decided to have a go at nurturing some of my own. They are quite beautiful to look at actually. Mysterious and primordial even, with their spiky leaves and scaly bulbous buds they look like they come from The Land That Time Forgot. And plus they taste good. Their leaves which carry little pockets of delicate creaminess always goes down well; in flavour they are very much akin to fresh asparagus, plucked straight out of the garden. So with all that in mind, I thought to myself earlier this year ‘Yes, I am going to give these a whirl dag nammit.’
The second was more successful as I was a lot more careful but rather than take the advice of removing the choke with a pointy spoon, I left it in and gave it a steam because Jane Grigson said that was a clever way of doing things in her Vegetable Book. It wasn’t because after steaming, the leaves had become far too supple and so when I tried to remove the tough choke, I ended up squashing the fragile cup with my clumsy, stumpy fingers. So that, rather mushily, also went into the bin.
My third artichoke very nearly crossed the finishing line. I trimmed it down. I removed the choke. Finally, I had a fine looking cup. So I prepared a fragrant Provençal type sauce with tomatoes, finely chopped onions, garlic, anchovies and herbs. I steamed the artichoke cup for about 20 minutes and then I filled it with the said mixture and topped it with some bread crumbs mixed with a smidgen of olive oil. I placed it in the oven to bake for a further 10 minutes or so. This was going to be a cracker of a starter. I had turned the grill on instead of the fan. I burnt the bejesus out of the artichoke. I threw it into the bin. Screaming.
At this point my wife returned from school with the children and asked how I was getting on. I said that she shouldn’t talk to me and that she should leave me alone. Which she did as that is regular behaviour, not quite noticing the smoke and the mountain of leaves and stalks in the sink. And then I did something morally reprehensible. I cheated. I pulled out a jar of marinated artichokes from the cupboard and made dinner with that instead. A lovely looking salad of char grilled courgettes, pickled artichokes, sundried tomatoes, halloumi and basil oil.
Everyone around the table congratulated me on a job well done on Tuesday night but I must admit I have been feeling quite bad about the whole saga ever since. A big fraud. So seeing as I had one last artichoke left in the fridge, yesterday morning I thought I should have one last crack at the whip, to try and redeem myself. This time, I simply chopped the stem off, gave the leaves a quick snip at the top and steamed it whole for about 40 minutes and ate it at the table with a simple butter and hazelnut dip.
It was heavenly and it was something that I probably should have done right at the beginning, rather then go through any fancy, elaborate notions. The moral of this story is that simplicity really is best. Saying that though, I have got a sneaky suspicion that the globe artichokes I’ve got growing down at the allotment might remain untouched come autumn. Those damn thistles have scarred me for life.