Product of the week: artichokes

Categories: Product of the week

A tour of the Market’s myriad varieties of artichoke—and how to make the most of them

Put aside, for a moment, those knobbly jerusalems we’ve enjoyed for the past six months—they share a name with the big, bulbous globes, but little else. Real artichokes belong not to the roasts and stews of winter, but the salads and fricassees of spring. Their appearance is redolent of it, too—tight buds of flesh encased in sturdy outer leaves like the unfurled petals of a flower.

“I really admire their versatility as a vegetable,” gushes regular demo chef Ursula Ferrigno. “There are many different varieties of artichoke and there are so many wonderful things you can do with them.” At this point in the UK season, globe artichokes are young and tender, their centres not yet developed into a fuzzy choke—“they won’t till around August,” says Kath at Ted’s Veg. Small and sweet, “these baby ones can be eaten raw. I used to eat hundreds of them out in the field.” The arrival of the baby artichokes is greeted with similar enthusiasm in Italy. “We love them when they’re a little bud, enjoyed in that lovely rawness,” says Ursula. “Their green, grassy flavour really makes you salivate.”

Simply peel off a couple of layers—“but not so much as a mature artichoke”—and eat them as they are; boil them in water; or preserve them for summer picnics. “My nonna used to put them in jars with oil, a little vinegar, some garlic and mint—mint goes really well with artichokes—and we’d serve them as antipasto,” Ursula continues. “You can have the young, juicy, tender leaves in an omelette. The French treatment of more mature artichokes is very different. They dip the leaves either into hollandaise or a vinaigrette and then suck them—that lovely little nub at the end that’s filled with sweet juiciness. Then you cut the remaining top off and devour the base or ‘heart’. Utterly delicious.”

Beautiful violet versions
Artichokes arrive a little earlier in the year in Italy, meaning the Market’s also blessed with fully grown Italian globes, to be found at Turnips, as well as beautiful violet versions at Elsey and Bent. “The green globe has very vicious-looking thorns, but there’s also a thorn-less variety, the imperial star, which grows in this country,” Ursula explains. “Violet artichokes are usually medium-sized and they look lovely and romantic before they’re cooked, but sadly they turn green after two minutes’ cooking!”

All are similar in flavour—“unless you have a very fine palate”—and can be treated in much the same way. “I find people really shy away from artichokes, thinking they’re going to be difficult to prepare, but they’re not,” says Ursula. “You just peel away all the outer, tougher leaves until the snap is completely different, soft and tender, then with a teaspoon open up the bud in the centre and remove the hairy choke—it’s called the choke because it makes you choke, so you have to remove it! Have some acidulated lemon water ready because they will discolour as soon as you peel them.” Then you’re ready to get cooking.

“They can be stuffed with herbs and breadcrumbs, or they are amazing on the barbecue,” she enthuses. “Boil them for around 25 minutes, depending on the size, and you can either eat them just as they are with a lovely dressing, or dry them thoroughly, open them up and put them on the barbecue. They become crisp and crunchy, with an intensified artichoke flavour.” Be sure to eat the stalk, too: “It has a very special flavour all of its own—it’s almost the finest part. It has a sweetness to it which makes you feel very happy indeed.”