So starts Pablo Neruda's "Ode to the artichoke" (for the full poem: in Spanish here, or in English, losing a bit through the translation, here). Not many vegetables have had the honour of a poem from a Nobel laureate. Love it, loathe it or just find it weird. It's hard to remain indifferent to this edible flower bud. I could hardly stand it as a kid. I found its sweetish taste disturbing. But since my mom comes from Rome, where the things are an object of love, artichokes often popped up on our table. Now I love them. Maybe it's an acquired taste or maybe my taste buds have grown up with me: still now I could never get enough. So I was really happy to find some on sale last Sturday and use them, in a classic combo, with lamb.
Artichokes are a relative of thistle. Each plant produces a central bud (the best artichoke) and a few side ones (if I remember correctly my Botanics exam 3 is the average). There are two main distinctions between different varieties. First of all some have thorns on the bud "leaves" while others don't. The other distinction is their ability to re-flower. Some sorts will only flower once. Others will flower again once the first buds are cut off. In some cases these new buds will be much smaller and can be used to prepare carciofini sott'olio, the famous antipasti mini-artichokes.
There are many varieties, each with a slightly different taste. The most famous is probably the globe kind. Although this is a decent artichoke I find its leaves (bracts actually) quite hard and it usually has plenty of thistles (the hairy bit in the middle). I prefer varieties like the Tuscan violet and Romano. The Romano is great for making many, as you could imagine, roman style dishes. Apart the lovely and simple fried artichoke (which I could eat kilos of), the most famous speciality is carciofi alla giudia, or Jewish style artichoke. There are quite a few recipes for this: they all have in common the huge amount of oil needed :-). It's sort of ironic that in Rome, the seat of the Pope, many of the traditional dishes have roots in the local Jewish community. My favourite artichoke though is the spinoso Sardo or Sardinian thorny (?). No other choke has such a flavour. The best way to eat it is IMO raw, as a carpaccio or in pinzimonio, i.e. with olive oil, lemon, salt and pepper.
Most cookbooks, especially classic French haute-cuisine ones, will tell you to only use the artichoke hearts. Bollocks to that! You'll be throwing away loads of good stuff (except if you WANT choke hearts). Considering how expensive they are here in Germany I want to keep as much as I can. (BTW how can it be that these buds are more expensive than tropical fruits?) I usually cut the stem except the last 2-3 cm (1 in), then remove the hard outer leaves. You'll notice when you reach the soft ones as these leaves will not snap off the base but rather bend away softly. At this point I cut off the top third of the leaves (which is almost hopelessly hard) and remove the thistles. If you want the choke to stay whole, open up the leaves and scrape the thistles off with a teaspoon. It's actually easier to cut the choke in half, but that's not always an option. If the bud is still young you might be lucky and find no thistles at all. You can then cut them as you like (diced, slices, quarters, etc) and cook them with many different methods (fried, braised, steamed, pan-fried....).
What did I do with my artichokes? I simply braised them (3 of them for 2 people, cleaned and cut into wedges) with a chopped garlic clove, a heaped teaspoon of fresh oregano leaves and a little white wine (salt and pepper clearly too). To go with the artichokes some roasted lamb. The lamb loin rolls (2) were quickly seared in a pan and roasted in the oven for 20 minutes (at 180C/350F). Maybe a couple of minutes less wouldn't have gone amiss. I would have liked the meat to stay a bit more pink. To serve I sliced the loins and arranged them fanned out around a mount of artichokes. The meat got drizzled with a sauce made de-glazing the pan with some stock and red wine and then reducing the resulting liquid till it coated a spoon. Lamb and artichokes...mmmhhh :-9.