Enjoy some “cow thistle” (artichokes)

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They are a bit of an outlier in the produce aisles: artichokes.

Ontario artichokes, not easy to grow, are available starting now and running into September and October. An ancient delicacy, and especially loved in Sicily, they are something of a mystery to many people who don’t know what to do with them and therefore largely ignore the thing. 

The flower of a large thistle, the artichoke was revered by the Romans. Made up of a concentric agglomeration of  large, thick and spiny leaves that form “globes,” the artichoke was likely developed in the later Middle Ages in Spain. They became popular in Sicily remain so today.

They were introduced to England during the reign of Henry VIII. It’s acceptance was slow, however: they were often called “garden thistles,” or, better yet, “cow thistles.” A recipe from the mid-1600s, noted in Cooking with Shakespeare, requires that they be boiled with butter, vinegar and salt and pepper.

The trouble with artichokes is the work needed to prepare and eat them. Unlike, say, broccoli, which you merely cut apart and dump into boiling water, you have to pull off most of the tough outer leaves (called “bracts”), slice open the main part of the artichoke with a knife (that you’ve first run through a lemon), and scoop out the fibrous florets that form a central nodule which is referred to as the “choke.”

You then have to get the artichoke into acidulated water almost immediately or it turns brown. They also react with other ingredients and metals and must be cooked in glass, stainless steel or enamelware to inhibit off-flavours and discolouration.

To simplify things a bit, look for “baby” artichokes: immature flowers that grow lower on the plant’s stalk and which are picked when there’s is little or no choke yet developed. Peel off the toughest outside leaves, trim the stalk end and cut the artichoke in half along its length. There is no choke to remove.

Artichoke diagram showing “choke” (Image/Wikimedia Commons).

Rub the halves with lemon and blanch them for a few minutes in boiling water. Remove and pat the artichoke halves dry with a kitchen towel, season with salt and pepper, drizzle with olive oil and place gently on a medium-hot barbecue grill. Toast the artichokes to a golden brown colour before turning them for a brief grilling on the other side.

The little morsels are the perfect size for dipping into a cheesy sauce of your choice (perhaps an Asiago cheese dip) and popping into your mouth as part of a simple and delicate appetizer course – or just a snack.

You may find artichoke, in some version, on the menu of Middle Eastern restaurants like Shawerma Plus, Italian venues such as Ennio’s and Famoso, and at stores such as Vincenzo’s.

[Banner image/Sharon Mollerus via Wikimedia Commons]

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