I'll never forget my first experience of preparing artichokes in a restaurant. A huge box of them was placed on my bench and a demonstration followed. I was then left with the monumental task of whittling down 50 or more by myself. It seemed to take forever, and there was very little to show once I had finished.
Yesterday, at my local grocer, I bought six large, impeccably fresh, bright green globe artichokes. As my friend Henrietta and I prepared them for dinner, my friend confessed to loving artichokes but being quite bemused by the effort it took to prepare them: "I never know how much to peel to get to the edible part," she said. This is a common complaint, as artichoke leaves change from tough and fibrous to soft and delicate with nothing in between. But as Marcella Hazan writes in her cookbook Marcella Cucina, "you must be ruthless and leave nothing on it that might be incapable later of bringing you untroubled pleasure". And she's right - extracting a tough leaf or stem from between your teeth at the dinner table is very off-putting.
So how do you know you've reached the tender edible part? As it happened, the hearts of the artichokes I'd just bought were quite generous in size. Unfortunately, this is more about luck than knowledge, as you can't tell what size the edible part will be until you start paring it, and the variations are considerable.
My technique in paring an artichoke is to hold one in my left hand and snap the tough outer leaves away from me with my right until I reach a leaf that is soft to the bite and light green in colour. This is your marker. Once you've reached it, slice the top centimetre of the head off with a paring knife, cut away the outer green stem until you get to the delicate white core, then trim underneath. Be careful not to trim too much, but err on the side of too much rather than too little. Cut the artichoke in half to reveal the furry, inedible choke. Scoop out the choke with a small teaspoon or with the point of a knife and discard it. At this stage most recipes direct you to put the artichoke into acidulated water (water with a splash of lemon juice or vinegar) to prevent it from going black, which happens very quickly. If I'm only cooking a few, though, I usually don't bother. They'll change colour as they cook anyway, and the flavour remains the same.
Artichokes have a delicate but persistent taste. They go very well with olive oil and with something with a sharp flavour, such as a hard goat's cheese or ewe's milk cheese. They work well with a splash of lemon juice or a good sherry vinegar, perhaps with some crisp radicchio leaves and grilled quail or fried slivers of jamón - the touch of acidity gives their earthy flavour a lift.
Many classic recipes call for you to braise artichokes in white wine and herbs, or to cook them in tomato sugo. I like to cook them quickly and gently, keeping them fresh and light, so they don't stew or overcook. I like them sautéed with olive oil, garlic and a hint of chilli and tossed through spaghettini with shavings of salted ricotta. And they make a perfect accompaniment to veal. I make a fricassée of artichokes, peas, mint and waxy potatoes to go with veal schnitzel - a delicious combination.
Artichokes have a long season - from autumn to spring - and they're particularly good at the end of winter. At this time of year, they're especially good crumbed or fried, with lots of lemon, mint, and grilled haloumi or aïoli. But as the weather warms they are also great served raw: they can be thinly sliced and tossed through a salad of delicate leaves; combined with finely julienned raw carrots and zucchini; or thinly sliced and dressed in the best salt flakes, lemon juice (or white wine vinegar) and extra-virgin olive oil.
Last night, though, I tried something different. I sliced the artichokes and put them into my copper saucepan along with a generous amount of my best extra-virgin olive oil and some finely sliced garlic. I sautéed them until they started to brown and wilt, then sprinkled them with salt and covered the pan with a lid. I love this technique of part-sautéing and part-steaming; it gives the artichokes a much richer flavour than if they'd been boiled or braised. I added a splash of white wine, reduced it a little, then added a splash of chicken stock and cooked them until they were just tender and swimming in a lovely sauce. I served them to Henrietta with a good grinding of black pepper, some shavings of parmesan, a squeeze of lemon juice, fresh borlotti beans and some kipflers finished in nut-brown butter. It was completely delicious.