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November 11, 2010

While writing a forthcoming item on baby artichokes for my new My Market section, I came across this article which I originally wrote for Wellington's Dominion Post exactly seven years ago. It contains some interesting artichoke facts and stories.

Monstrous artichokes

Pliny denounced globe artichokes as “monstrous productions of the earth” and thought his fellow Romans were mad for eating them when even animals refused to touch them.

His contemporaries didn’t share his view and wealthy Romans used to eat artichokes with honey and vinegar, seasoned with cumin.

Apicius, a first century gourmet and author of De Re Coquinaria (On Cookery) gives his own take on cooking cardui, as the Romans called them. He suggests grinding rue, mint, coriander and fennel, making certain the herbs are all fresh. These should be mixed well and added to a stock with pepper, lovage, honey and a little oil. This mixture is simmered and then used as a dressing for steamed artichokes.

By the 15th century the artichoke had become a staple of the Italian diet. In the next century Catherine de Medici is credited with making artichokes famous and introducing them to France.

She defied the popular convention dictating that women were not to eat vegetables thought to possess aphrodisiac qualities – artichokes had this reputation.

In fact she was so fond of them she would eat them to excess. The chronicler, Pierre de L'Estoile, in his journal of June 19, 1576 talks about the occasion of the wedding of Marquis de Lomenie and Mlle de Martigues, "The Queen Mother ate so much she thought she would die, and was very ill with diarrhoea. They said it was from eating too many artichoke bottoms and the combs and kidney of cockerels, of which she was very fond."

Henry VIII, perhaps lured by the supposed aphrodisiac qualities of the artichoke, was said to consume generous quantities.

One of the strange things about globe artichokes is the effect they have on the tastebuds. They contain a phytochemical known as cynarin and people who like a glass of wine with their meal often find it tastes unpalatable when they are eating artichokes. This potent effect on the tastebuds has been the subject of a couple of taste tests, one in 1934, the other in 1972 which confirmed this phenomenon, noting that the majority of the people in the test found that after eating an artichoke, a sweet taste lingered for a short period. Those sweet tasters discovered that anything eaten immediately after tasted sweet.

Artichokes are reputedly good for detoxing the liver and are used in Turkey in cases of hepatitis. They are also supposed to have beneficial effects on the gall bladder.

The artichoke is being examined in research labs to explore its phytochemical contents. Two of these compounds, cynarin, mentioned above,  and silymarin, possess powerful antioxidant properties that may be beneficial in helping the liver to regenerate tissue growth.

When buying them, look for a fresh bright colour and tightly closed leaves.

To cook them, trim the stalk, pull off some of the coarser outside leaves them cut horizontally through the tops of the leaves, chopping off the points. Simmer in salted water to which has been added the juice of a lemon. Do not use an aluminium pot. If you are cooking several large artichokes then a pasta pot is ideal. Cook until a leaf pulls away easily when tested.

At this stage the artichokes can be served hot with melted butter, or chilled with a vinaigrette or they can be served with Hollandaise sauce. You pull off a leaf, dip the stalk end in the accompaniment of your choice, then draw the end of the leaf through your teeth, removing the tender part.

Continue in this manner until the leaves have been removed. This will bare the hairy “choke”. This should be removed and discarded, revealing the object of the exercise – the artichoke heart. Dip on and savour it.

Hollandaise Sauce

Take your time making this sauce. The idea is to break the mixture down into very small drops. If you add too much butter it will form into a big lump. If the heat gets too high, the egg yolk will cook and curdle instead of bonding with the butter. If your sauce should happen to curdle, whisk it into another beaten egg yolk.

4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons water
180g soft butter
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/4  teaspoon salt
pinch cayenne pepper

Place the egg yolks and water in the top of a double boiler and whisk until thoroughly mixed. Place over about 2cm of simmering water over a low heat. Do not let the top of the double boiler touch the water below. Add the butter a little at a time, whisking well between additions. Keep whisking until all the butter has been added and the sauce is thick. Add the salt, cayenne pepper and lemon juice.

*   *   *

Stuffed Artichoke Bottoms

Bartolomeo Scappi wrote a cookbook in the 1500s and the following adaptation of his recipe for stuffed artichoke hearts was the sort of fare Catherine de Medici would have been eating.

10 large artichoke hearts
lemon juice
125g mushrooms
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small onion, minced
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons minced parsley
2 tablespoons minced lean prosciutto (optional)
6 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup breadcrumbs
seasoning to taste
1/3 cup finely diced mozzarella (optional)

Cook the artichokes as above. Discard all leaves and the chokes and trim undersides.

Saute mushrooms, garlic and onion in the oil till golden brown and dry. Mix with parsley, ham, 4 tablespoons cheese, breadcrumbs, salt and pepper.

Pack mixture firmly into mounds on each artichoke heart. Top each with a little mozzarella if you are using it, then sprinkle with Parmesan.

Pour a thin layer of olive oil in a shallow baking pan and arrange the artichoke hearts, stuffed side up, in a single layer. Bake at  180C for about 20 minutes until the top is golden brown.

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