Friday, October 16, 2009

The Gardener Cook- a prickly tale of artichokes

Despite my interest in artichokes as ornamentals, I must admit to being a novice when it comes to their cooking. I don’t remember eating fresh artichokes as a child, so my first experience was probably about five years ago after confessing this ignorance to my aunt: she prepared boiled artichokes which we nibbled with mayonnaise. Since then I hadn’t ventured much further, preparing them myself a few times boiled with hollandaise. I enjoy this method, but they’re so fiddly to eat this way they’ve being a “once a year” meal for us!

Then this week, on a whim, B brought home two artichokes while shopping for a barbecue dinner, which got us researching other ways to prepare artichokes. The reason he bought them was that several years ago, when we lived in an apartment building in Denver, we frequently met a seriously gourmet couple on our building’s barbecue terrace. Our simple meals of marinated meats, sausages or kebabs were invariably trumped by their multi-course masterpieces, which once included barbecued artichokes. Unfortunately, all I remember of their recipe was that it was inspired by their visit to a Californian gourmet retreat.

I scoured my cookbooks for simple ways to roast artichokes, without success- any favourite recipes would be appreciated, dear reader! In the end I decided to go with The Silver Spoon’s Roman Artichokes, which in simple form is:

(for 8 artichokes) Remove the stems and trim the leaves back to the edible bit and scoop out the inedible chokes. Into this cavity, place a stuffing made from chopping together the tender centre of the stems, a handful of fresh parsley and two cloves of garlic. Drizzle with olive oil and roast at around 200C in a covered dish surrounded by ~1 cup chicken stock.

It was quite tasty, and I will keep it in mind for the next time I am faced with artichokes.

Whilst researching, I also consulted Christopher Lloyd’s Gardener Cook, a useful reference for both the gardening and cooking side of fruit and vegetables. The late Lloyd lived in apparent manorial splendour at Great Dixter in Sussex, UK, where he took an interest in both the ornamental and edible garden, specialized in growing unusual plants, and wrote numerous columns and books.

Gardener Cook is worth a read, if for no other reason than its (to my mind) Traditional English Cookery School approach to recipes (which is not a criticism but a compliment: I think sometimes people forget the many good aspects of English Cuisine). There is a generous preview available on Google Books.

Lloyd is honest in his appraisal of the various harvests, and his opinions are never veiled in the chapter on artichokes. I had to laugh at his candid comments, particularly on the named artichoke-unappreciators.

Abridged excerpt from Gardener Cook by Christopher Lloyd, 1997 (Penguin Books):

The globe artichoke, Cynara scolymus, does not really deserve specific rank, having been developed from the cardoon, C. cardunculus, a much taller plant with violently prickly flower heads that do not at all lend theirselves to handling at table, although their young stems can be blanched for eating like celery. I have never tried this out. But cardoons are handsome plants in a border setting, which is their place in the garden.

I have a passion for globe artichokes and grow a great many plants, but it has to be admitted that this crop is wasteful of space, if space is at a premium. The wonderful grey, dissected foliage and generally handsome appearance right up to the time of being ready to eat sometimes tempts those who haven't much space to spare to include them in their flower border. However once you have cut the heads to eat, the plant never looks the same again and nothing will disguise the fact. From early June on, you are the owner of an eyesore.


It is most important to start with good stock of an accredited named variety that has been vegetatively propagated. Artichokes are easily raised from seed but the resulting seedlings are always inferior to named clones. For one thing they are often uncomfortably prickly, which is quite unnecessary; or the crowns will not be as large and succulent as is desirable. There is a purple tinted artichoke which I particularly abhor. Avoid it.


It is possible to make your new [artichoke] bed too early. If established in March, its first cropping may start at the end of June, overlapping the second-year bed by too wide a margin. (For heaven's sake don't go on holiday in June.)


Attitudes to Artichokes

If you are brought up with artichokes from the first, there is no difficulty about adjusting to the rather peculiar method of eating them. I can, and do, eat them every day, if I am on my own and they are asking to be eaten. I never tire of them. My brother, Oliver, had a surfeit when young and didn't want to see them again until near the end of his life. I never saw my father (who died when I was twelve) eat them, and he expressed mock horror when his children were indulging in the even more bestial ritual of guzzling corn on the cob. He would hold a napkin up in front of his eyes. It must have been my mother who brought artichokes to Dixter, but when she developed a taste for them, I do not know. I entertain a good deal. Nearly all my young friends are adaptable and, if they have not met artichokes before meeting me, it takes them little or no time to get the hang of them. There are various short cuts which allow their consumption to be quite rapid, though never as quick as mine, but then that gives me time to get ready for the main course. However, there are stuffier adults who are nervous of and unfamiliar with artichokes but don't like to admit it. (Advice on how to tackle them is easily forthcoming and seldom has to come from me.) They pretend that they are a lot of fuss about nothing. The worst so far was an American, Paul Aden, who, after pulling his artichoke to pieces, left it all on his plate. 'Are you going to eat it?' I inquired, wondering if he was just resting. 'I have had sufficient,' he replied loftily.


It's great, isn't it? But pity poor Paul Aden, who will forever be "the lofty American"!!

While researching this, I came across Lloyd’s obituary in The Times, which concludes:

Lloyd, as befits the down-to-earth gardener that he was, died from complications of an operation on his knees. He wanted no funeral but a party.

Maybe that’s an obituary all of us lesser gardeners can aspire to?


Bangchik said...

Most veggie and fruits is about getting used to eating them..., best if exposed early in life. Just like Malaysians love durians so much but some others especially Europeans find it difficult to even sit near durians.... I don't think I have eaten artichokes before... ~bangchik

JamieAndNarbelis said...

I remember eating them at Clowes St with the family. We always served them with a jug of melted garlic butter and a large plate for the leaf debris. You just can't rush eating them because you eat them one leaf at a time so always time for conversation.

_vTg_ said...

Bangchik: I totally agree! I try to offer the boys a range of foods with this in mind, though Big Bro has already developed food prejudices *sigh*.

J&N: When I read that it brought back a memory of Granny eating artichokes- so maybe I did have them before E's version? The conversation aspect is a good point; on the other hand they are a nightmare to eat when trying to spoon feed a hungry baby!!

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