One at a time, prepare the artichokes as follows:
Remove the stem by bending it at the base of the artichoke until it snaps off, thus detaching with the stem any tough filaments which may have pushed up into the heart.
Break off the small leaves at the base of the artichoke. Trim the base with a knife so the artichoke will stand solidly upright.
Lay the artichoke on its side and slice three quarters of an inch off the top of the center cone of leaves. Trim off the points of the rest of the leaves with scissors. Wash under cold running water.
Rub the cut portions of the artichoke with lemon juice. Drop it into a basin of cold water containing 1 tablespoon of vinegar per quart of water. The acid prevents the artichoke from discoloring. [Julia Child. Mastering the Art of French Cooking]
(Artichoke, after Child): Holding the heart base up, rotate it slowly with your left hand against the blade of a knife held firmly in your right hand to remove all pieces of ambition & expose the pale surface of the heart. Frequently rub the cut portions with gall. Drop each heart as it is finished into acidulated water. The choke can be removed after cooking. [Erica Jong. Fruits and Vegetables]
These days, the emphasis in lots of writing about food, and particularly about cooking, is on the pleasures of simple food. Fast, simple food. Buying into the contemporary Western trend for claiming we’re too busy for almost anything, it seems many of us can find time to watch others cooking, on TV, but baulk at spending quality time in the market, garden and kitchen.
And yet, if you enjoy cooking and food, there is something comforting about cooking and serving elaborate meals. In a world of frenzied busy-ness, taking the time to make your own pastry, for example, can be incredibly meditative, even restorative. Standing in the kitchen, beating eggs, whipping cream, slicing jerusalem artichokes the frayed, too-fast world recedes. I don’t check my email when I’m cooking, or answer the phone. My hands are too sticky or floury, or I’m in the middle of a recipe that requires I constantly beat while pouring in a stream of melted butter.
The email can wait. The call can go to message bank. The béarnaise holds my full and undivided attention.
And, after several hours, and a few sinkloads of dishes, I can plate up. I take enormous pleasure from serving food to family and guests: a well-prepared meal, after all, is a simple and unadulterated gift for those who sit at your table. The gift of your time, forethought, energy and attention. For those who sit at my table, I have pored through recipe books, strolled the lanes of the market, watered, weeded and seeded my garden, harvested and dreamed. Whipped, beaten, rolled and trussed.
This week, the artichokes are in season. In fact, it is that brief but glorious time of year when both artichokes and jerusalem artichokes are in season. The thistle heads, heavy and close-mouthed, with their purpling tips. The nutty, gleaming flesh of the jerusalems, with their knobbled bodies each a different shape, surprisingly soft despite their gnomic, earthy appearance.
In French, there is a saying: Avoir un coeur d’artichaut (To have the heart of an artichoke). The saying dates from the late 19th century and is used to describe a person who is easily moved, or – more commonly – who falls in love easily and often. Their heart is likened to that of an artichoke, with its many leaves, each of which can be given to a different person. The saying comes from the proverb “couer d’artichaut, une feuille pour tout le monde” (artichoke heart, a leaf for everyone). I wonder whether one can reclaim the affections of a wandering lover with an artichoke, feeding them, faithfully, every leaf of a denuded heart rather than being more profligate and dividing the thistle among a dozen, or more, amants?
This week, I have cooked artichoke hearts, in lemon myrtle butter, and served them on tiny jerusalem artichoke pancakes, with a wicked lemon myrtle béarnaise sauce. The recipe(s) are from Juleigh Robins book, Wild Food, which is a celebration of Australian native foods, focusing on fourteen ingredients: anisata, Davidson’s plums, Kakadu plums, lemon myrtle, macadamias, wild lime, bush tomatoes, Tasmanian mountain pepperberries, lemon aspen, native mint, quandong, riberries, wattleseed and wild rosellas. Not all of the recipes are complex, in fact, most are simple and wholesome combinations of unusual ingredients and familiar forms: a blend of native ingredients and traditional cuisines.
Juleigh’s recipe has three elements: baked artichoke heart with lemon myrtle butter; lemon myrtle béarnaise; and jerusalem artichoke pancakes.
Every mixing bowl, every pot, every mixing spoon in the kitchen has been called into service. I have strewn the bench with flour, separated eggs through my fingers, heated oil, clipped and trimmed and ‘choked’ the artichokes and wrapped them individually, with dobs of butter, lemon myrtle, pepper and lemon, in sheets of foil. The last lot of hollandaise I attempted was a disaster – and my mother-in-law was visiting – so it was wonderful when the béarnaise came true: the butter frothing and thickening with the shallots, white wine vinegar and (more!) lemon myrtle.
On the plate, the colours were pleasingly autumnal: purple and cream and gold and brown. The artichokes each enthroned on their jerusalem artichoke pancakes. The combination was rich, warm, thrillingly nutty and sweet and wild. The béarnaise overflowed the hearts, spilling over the plate in a lush, gleaming swirl.
There was a lot of béarnaise. It filled the pan: a buttery, silken delight that we have also eaten, in the days after the artichokes, poured over poached eggs when we get up, in the dark, to light the fire and eat breakfast.
As Neruda wrote, in his Ode to the Artichoke:
escama por escama
la pacífica pasta
de su corazón verde.
[scale after scale
and we eat
the peaceful pulp
of his green heart.]