We had a couple of friends round for dinner on Sunday, nothing fancy, just a short notice thing, loosely arranged only the day before. I had thought something fishy, maybe squid, but by the time I got away from work and to the fishmongers on Saturday afternoon it was after four, and there really wasn’t much left on their slab that appealed. I picked up a whole smoked mackerel, and figured on doing a version of the smoked mackerel, beetroot and potato salad that I’ve featured here before (except with seasonal asparagus, rather than beans). Which is delicious, and very pretty, but seemed a little insubstantial to form the feature item of a dinner you have friends round for, no matter how unfancy. Lunch, yes; dinner, not really. So I wondered what I might be able to do for a starter that might take up the slack.
And then I saw these artichokes.
They were in Whole Food, the upmarket organic supermarket on Stoke Newington’s Church Street that used to be Fresh & Wild, and which I normally never shop in on principle – several principles in fact:
1. It’s stupidly expensive.
2. It promotes the idea of the organic movement being an affluent middle class lifestyle choice, rather than something that the food industry as a whole should be taking notice of (not necessarily, in my opinion, adopting wholesale, mind, absolutism, in this instance, as in any other that springs readily to mind, being counter productive) and making available to all, even if that always will be at something of a premium.
3. It bundles organic food up with all sorts of hippy/new age mumbo jumbo as part of that lifestyle, which just plain makes me mad. I would have serious issues with supporting any business that promotes homeopathy or crystal healing, and to be fair, I’m not 100% sure that Whole Food do sell specifically homeopathic or crystal based remedies, but they do undoubtedly associate organic food with just that sort of fuzzy, touchy feely bollocks. Stop it! People, there is no connection between an unwaxed lemon and aromatherapy. Unwaxed lemon, good. Aromatherapy, crystal healing and homeopathy – particularly homeopathy – bad. Bad and wrong.
But these artichokes were amazing. Beautiful, perfectly round, and huge. And just inside the door so I noticed them from the street. And, at 2 for £3, they were even something of a bargain. And they would make a perfect starter, two of them being plenty enough for four of us, without being too filling, and having, in their sheer size and beauty, enough drama about them to make the whole meal seem a bit more of an event, without really going to any special trouble.
Anyway, I picked up two artichokes, along with a bottle of Picpoul, from Whole Food’s small, but actually surprisingly reasonable range of wines (maybe they’re not as evil as all that…) which I thought would be just about the perfect wine to go with them. Turns out I wasn’t alone in that thought, because the French girl at the checkout – from Lyon, no less, so she should know – complimented me on my selection, and when she asked how I intended to serve the artichokes, and I told her probably just boiled and with a vinaigrette dressing, she smiled, nodded sagely and said, “Yes. The best way.” So, somewhat annoyingly, I have to say, the experience of shopping at Whole Food turned out to be really rather gratifying. Damn them, or the French girl at the check out, anyway…
Cooking artichokes is very easy, although there is the problem when they’re this size of having a pot big enough for the two of them. Fortunately I have a range of stockpots going right up to catering size, but if you’ve got a good, big, deep pasta pan that should be OK. Or you might need to cook them one at a time, which is do-able, if a lot of faff. And faff, I have to admit, is what generally puts me off artichokes – not so much in the cooking, though, as the eating. It’s always seemed a lot of picking off of leaves and dipping in dressing, for not very much actual eating, to me, but I’m prepared to make an exception. Either for the reasons stated above in this case, or for the deep fried artichokes Becca and I had at Da Giggetto, in Rome, (which I’ve mentioned before, as the inspiration for the Oxtail stew I’ve posted a recipe for here). These crisp, golden things of rare beauty are a speciality of the house, and the Roman Jewish ghetto in general, and remain among the most memorable dishes I’ve ever had in a restaurant.
Anyway, back to my own artichokes: having found a big enough pan, I filled it with water, into which I dropped a handful of salt, a few black peppercorns, three or four unpeeled, but lightly crushed, cloves of garlic, a few sprigs of time and one of rosemary. I halved a lemon and squeezed in the juice, then dropped the squeezed out husks into the water too. Then I brought the pan to the boil, and when it was merrily bubbling away, I dropped in the artichokes, poured a generous slug of olive oil over them, put the lid on the pan and turned the heat down to let it all simmer away gently until a knife slid easily in to the base of the choke - about 45 minutes in the case of artichokes of this size. Then I fished out the artichokes and stood them upside down in a bowl to drain (make sure you have your bowl to hand or your colander ready in the sink before you fish out your first artichoke, the last thing you want to do is be running round the kitchen with a steaming hot artichoke shedding near boiling cooking liquid all over your floor, let alone your hand). Or, if you have time, cook them for just about half an hour and then turn off the heat and leave them to cool in the liquor – they should end up perfectly cooked and easier to handle when it comes to fishing them out.
While the artichokes were cooking I made the dressing. You could do a basic vinaigrette, although I would suggest making it a bit more mustardy than usual (unless you always make it very mustardy, in which case, just as usual), for a bit of extra piquancy, to contrast with the smooth, strong but mellow flavour of the artichoke. On this occasion, I decided to add piquancy by the addition of anchovy and capers to the dressing. Chopping one of my big fat, salted anchovies, with a dessert spoon or so of large capers, and crushing them together with a bit of extra salt, a grind of pepper and a clove or two of garlic with my pestle and mortar before adding the juice of half a lemon, a similar volume of sherry vinegar and enough good flavoured extra virgin olive oil to make a two one acid to oil ratio. I shook the dressing vigorously in a sealed jar to emulsify it, and served it in little individual dishes (actually ‘cuncas’, traditional Galician wine cups) on peoples plates for dipping the artichoke leaves into as you pulled them off and ate them.
This really was as delicious, and satisfying, as it was dramatically beautiful.
Even the remains were beautiful: