Ever since I landed from a two week food and cooking trip in Florence last October, I’ve had my nose to the ground trying to sniff out artichokes.
I fell in love with the peculiar, alien like flower-looking things when I was cooking in Florence and knew I would be greeted with frustration in my quest for them on UK soil.
They’re not completely out of the question here, of course. We’re all familiar with seeing them crammed up and swimming in oil in frustrated jars on the counter, but I needed more. I needed the real thing. Much like celebrity impersonators, they’re fine for a quick glimpse but when you need the experience, you need the real thing.
That’s not to bash the jar variety of artichokes – have you ever blended them up with some cream cheese to make a dip? Run, don’t walk to it. It’s phenomenal.
However when you’re in love with something, you’re in love and anything less than 100% won’t do.
It was during my pasta making class at Giglio’s Cookery School that I first tried artichokes. I fried up some fresh artichoke hearts dressed simply with thyme and oil, tossed them up in some good wine, and then strewn together with homemade pasta to create a delicately textured but robustly flavoured meal. I had never tasted artichokes in their full-bodied splendour before and immediately became hooked.
One day at a café near the Duomo, I wanted to recreate my experience and ordered what was suspiciously called ARTICHOKE SALSA and prepared myself for what I knew and love. What was placed on the table was far from what I recognised. In fact it amused me so much I actually laughed.
The artichoke presented to me was like nature had sent a small spaceship to land before me and plant a flag in my confusion.
The artichoke was unfolded and looked like a galactic Amazonian flower that was waiting for me to put my hand in so that it close up and swallow me whole. Like Poison Ivy in the Batman film. I looked at it curiously. It looked nothing like the fresh artichoke hearts I had fried and tossed up with pasta. I felt like man discovering fire for the first time, staring at it, mouth open, prodding at it with wild abandon.
I didn’t know what to do. Some kind of white, garlic fragranced dip was then placed next to it. The friendly waiter said enjoy and went about his business.
I stared at the artichoke in bemusement and I suddenly became hot. I suddenly felt like I was on a hidden camera show to see how I’d react. While the artichoke was absolutely beautiful and impressive, the petals didn’t particularly look edible and everything just looked so pretty that I couldn’t really disturb it.
It didn’t look like something I just hack away at with a knife and fork. I sipped my wine and waited for further instruction.
Embarrassingly, I had to turn to my friendly waiter and explain I had never eaten this before and didn’t know what to do. He patted my back in what I assume was pity and without saying a single word, he mimed picking up a leaf, putting it in his mouth, pulling the leaf back out and then throwing it away.
I did as I was told but did it quickly with him stood there to make sure I did it right. I grabbed a leaf, put it in my mouth and using my teeth, I scraped every bit of green fleshy texture from it. I looked at him like a child looking back at its parents after doing a sum correctly. He said ‘Brava’ and walked away.
The taste was incredible and unlike anything I had ever experienced before. Softly textured but luxurious and buttery in taste, I suddenly felt like this chunky, flowery thing was an old friend. I grabbed at another petal, dunked it in the dip and scraped the dip and flesh from the leaf and with my teeth. Insane.
I kept going and going until I had no more leaves left (save for one or two that were hard and didn’t have any green flesh on them). And then, at the root of this flower, I saw a small, bud like heart of the artichoke covered in fluffy little strands of hair. My waiter clocked me. He came over and said ‘Hair out’ and motioned with his hand.
I thought he was having a dig at me because I’m bald. But alas, he was saying to take the hair off of the heart bud and add it to my pile of sucked petals. I did as I was told and what was left was a gorgeous, fleshy green heart. This was exactly what I had been chopping up and adding to my pasta dishes in class. I knew this part would be good.
I grabbed it, dunked it, sucked it and chewed it.
It’s hard to describe the taste of something when it doesn’t taste like anything you’ve tasted before. So imagine avocado… but deeper and richer. Earthier and more herbal at the same time as being a lot stronger in flavour. It’s madness. I knew then that my quest for real artichokes would be on-going forevermore.
Luckily I came across fresh artichokes in my local market (not supermarket) back home and immediately grabbed several. For the record, there’s a difference between Globe Artichokes and Jerusalem Artichokes – and for this dunking good time recipe, you want the Globes. They look like spaceship flowers, but this is absolutely part of their charm.
Now I make a super garlicky yogurt dip for these as I feel there is a subtle earthiness to the artichoke flesh on the petals, but you could easily have a simple extra virgin olive oil/cider vinegar/salt combo if you want a bit of simplicity.
Don’t be put off by the look of this recipe, I swear it looks faffier than it actually is. All you’re doing here is boiling a vegetable and then what you get is a good 30 minutes of plucking, dunking and sucking. It’s perfect with your mate over a glass of wine and putting the world to rights.
Preheat the oven to 200c.
Grab a garlic bulb (yes a whole one) and using a sharp knife, slice off the top so you can see the tops of each clove. Wrap with a tight but loose tent of foil and slip in the oven to bake for an hour. Once the hour is up, take the foil package out so that the garlic can cool.
In this time, start on your artichoke by boiling a full kettle.
Grab 2 or 3 artichokes and trim down the stem short enough so that they can sit upright on a plate.
In your biggest saucepan, add a small handful of black peppercorns, some salt, a halved onion (skin on, it doesn’t matter) and a halved lemon. Now pour in the boiling water and place on the hob on a high heat.
Bring the water back up to boil and once it’s boiling, add your globe artichokes. Bring the water back up to boiling, then drop to a simmer on a low(ish) heat, cover the pan and keep your artichokes simmering for 30 minutes.
In this time, make your dip. Like I said, you can have whatever dip you like with this, but I like to combine a few spoonful’s of plain yogurt with salt, pepper, some good olive oil and then squeezing out the caramelised garlic from the foil parcel from earlier. The caramel coloured garlic will emulsify in the yogurt and give it a super sweet, smoky richness.
Once the artichokes have had 30 minutes, take them out of the water with tongs upside down so all the water can drain from them and any peppercorns which got trapped in the leaves can fall out.
Place the artichokes on some plates and gently peel back the petals. Keep going until you can see the furry heart. Carefully with a spoon, scoop out all the hairy bit (this is very easy to do, just be gentle with a spoon) until you reveal the smooth, heart bud.
I like to spoon my Garlic Dip on to this heart. Not only does it make a great vehicle for the dip but it also means the heart takes on the dip flavours as I eat so when it actually comes time to chewing up the heart, it’s already slathered in flavour.
Serve. Simple as that. Reread the story prior to the recipe for how you ‘eat’ the artichoke leaves.
I promise it’ll be unlike anything you’ve ever tasted before.