There are people – they know who they are, and, in all honesty, I know who they are too – who are very, very good at food. They know it all. It’s old hat. No surprises. Who’ve forgotten how to be intimidated.
I am not one of those cooks. I forget to sharpen my knives and I don’t measure things. I can’t pronounce half the fancy French things I like to eat. I once dropped a roast leg of lamb on the kitchen floor in front of guests before serving it. I have set fire to my own saucepans making soup. I tried to make stock from the carcass of a shop-bought barbequed chicken and ended up with a pot full of mushy artificial stuffing.
Artichokes scare me.
It is unfamiliar, strange, unique. A thistle (a thistle flower bud, I think), for goodness sake. Kind of stringy and tough-ish. With a reputation for fussiness of preparation and eating. (Wipe it immediately with lemon to stop it browning. Remove the ‘hairy choke’ – whatever that is! Dip each petal in butter then scrape with the teeth). Expensive. The first time I ever even touched, let alone cooked, a live, real, fresh one (as opposed to the delicious deli-bought variety) involved potential public humiliation. The kind with internet video footage (which sounds way worse than it actually is, I garuntee).
Artichokes scare me.
But in this fear is what food is for me: constant wonder, constant interrogation of the edible world, never quite being assured or certain as the eater, the preparer, the sharer, the host. I will never master the artichoke. I will never become a chef or kitchen wiz. But I will cook it, and eat it, and serve it – differently each time. Sometimes better, and sometimes undercooked or too mushy or oily or salty.
And the fear will be something a little bit like love: the bottom dropping out of my stomach when I realise that the possibility of everything going wrong is also the possibility of everything going right.
This spring has been the spring of the artichoke. Guided in these first heady weeks by Maggie Beer’s homey and casual advice, artichokes braised in verjuice and olive oil*. With more confidence, cooked in lemon juice and stock. Set aside and eaten cold. Minced and used as the stuffing for ravioli. Or omelettes.
Little by little a familiarity has crept in. A cautious letting down of my guard. Not enough for complacency, but definitely a budding romance.
* I am in love with Maggie Beer, AOM, in much the same way as I am obsessed with the J Cheese building. The J Cheese building is a private residence in an inner city suburb, remarkable for no other reason than that the words ‘J Cheese’ appear, moulded into it’s high, art-deco facade.
And I desire the J Cheese building for no other reason than the appearance of these words. To own a thing – be it a building or a name – that immediate evokes the presence of some desirable, edible, substance (Cheese, Beer) – is a concept of great attraction to me. And salivation. It’s Pavlovian. Which also makes me think of pavlova. Which also makes me salivate.
Artichokes with leeks and pasta
2 lemons, juiced
1 tbsp olive oil
¼ cup verjuice
1.5 litre (ish) water or vegetable stock
4 large artichokes (pick big ones with very tight petals and long stems).
2 garlic cloves
1 leek, cut into ½ cm wide, 10 cm long strips
400 gram very good quality dried pasta (I like filei calabresi for this. I am pretty fussy about pasta, and only dried, very, very dense duram wheat semolina pasta will work for this)
1 cup freshly podded peas
Parmesan cheese, to serve
In a large saucepan or deep pan heat the olive oil stock, verjuice and juice of one lemon.
Half fill a large bowl with water and add the juice of the remaining lemon.
Now – prepare the artichokes. First, start pulling off the outer most petals – peel and snap in a downward motion. Keep doing this until you are left with petals that are mostly a creamy yellow colour (about a third of the petals will be discarded). Then, with a very sharp knife or peeler, trim the stalk and broken petal stubs until the softer inner part of the stem is revealed. Rub any cut surface with the inner surface of the lemon peel (to stop it browning). Cut the top part of the petals off, at least a third of the way down. Cut in half lengthways, and with a teaspoon, remove the ‘hairy choke’ – that is, you’ll notice that at the base of the artichoke, before the petals start to become petal-y, a kind of fluffy soft looking crescent. Slip the curve of the spoon in under this, press back toward to top of the petals and then slip out. If you cut the petal off the top back enough, you can also scoop this out from the top, leaving the artichoke whole to cook.
Cut in half length ways again, and place in the bowl of lemon water, while you repeat with the remaining artichokes.
Add all artichoke quarters to the pan of stock and bring to a simmer. Cover with a lid and cook for about half an hour. The artichokes turn kind of grey-ish, which seems unappetising, except I’m pretty sure they are supposed to be this colour ...
After half an hour, remove the lid and add leek strips and pasta. The idea is to cook the pasta in this stock by reduction, a little like making risotto. If the liquid looks like running dry before the pasta is cooked, add a little more water. The pasta will take around half an hour to cook.
Meanwhile, cook the peas in a pan of simmering water until just cooked. Strain and set aside.
When the pasta is cook, taste and add salt as required (I find that this befits from a generous amount of sea salt) – stir through peas, and serve, topped with a little grated parmesan cheese.