The artichoke isn't a food to choose when you need a fast food fix. It's a slow food to linger over. Patience shown in preparation and eating is ultimately rewarded by the subtly flavoured leaves and the mouthwatering artichoke heart. You can serve artichoke as a dish in its own right, with a bowl of vinaigrette or lemon butter for dipping. We prefer to use it as an ingredient, adding something special to a salad, pasta sauce or pizza topping.
The artichoke developed from the cardoon and is thought to have originated in the Mediterranean region. There are references to it being grown in Italy and Sicily from around 300 B.C. In the ninth century it was being cultivated by the Moors in southern Spain. It is thought to have been introduced to England in the sixteenth century, although it has never made much of an impact on British cuisine.
Today the artichoke is prized in French and Italian cookery, and recipes for stuffed artichoke have long been popular in Arabic cuisine.
A single artichoke is the unopened flower bud of the plant Cynara scolymus, a member of the thistle family.
Pick artichokes with well-coloured, undamaged, tightly-closed leaves. Fresh artichokes will be heavy for their size due to their moisture content. Smaller artichokes have more tender leaves (baby artichokes may have leaves that are entirely edible); larger ones have bigger hearts.
Sprinkle with a little water and store in a plastic bag in the fridge. Use as soon as possible for maximum flavour.
Remove and discard the toughest of the outer leaves (bracts). Snip off any sharp leaf tips. Snap the stalk off at the base and remove the tough fibres running into the base where possible. Gently prise open the leaves to gain access to the core of the flower. Pull out the central cone of thinner leaves to reveal the inedible fibrous 'choke' (this may not be present in smaller baby artichokes). Carefully scrape this out with a teaspoon, leaving the prized heart in place. Rinse out the artichoke with acidulated water (e.g. water with a good squeeze of lemon juice added) to prevent discolouration.
Iron, copper or aluminium cookware will cause artichokes to oxidise and discolour. Use non-reactive knives and pans (e.g. stainless steel, glass or enamel). Place trimmed artichokes stem end down in a large pot of boiling water to which the juice of half a lemon has been added. It may be useful to place a colander, sieve or other device over the pan to keep the artichokes submerged. Cooking time will be somewhere between 20 and 45 minutes depending on size. Artichokes are cooked when you can easily pull out an inner leaf and the stem is tender. Stand the artichoke stem side up in a sieve to drain and cool. If eating with a dipping sauce, artichoke is best served just warm.
Artichokes can also be grilled or barbecued. Cut in half lengthways, remove the choke, rub with olive oil and grill on a moderate-to-low heat until the base is tender - around 30 minutes.
Pull off a leaf, dip (in hollondaise, lemon butter, mayonnaise, or vinaigrette), scrape the tender portion from the base of each leaf with your teeth and discard the tougher portion. Repeat until all leaves have been dispatched (smaller, thinner leaves may be ignored). When you reach the artichoke heart (cut away the choke if this wasn't done before cooking) eat it with a knife and fork.
Cynar, an artichoke-based spirit, is a popular aperitif in Italy.