This month’s article is brought to you by the letter A.
Now is the time to gorge on two of my favourite vegetables: asparagus and artichokes. A big part of their allure is that both remain steadfastly seasonal, and for the next month or two will be in plentiful supply and very reasonably priced. One requires some effort to bring out its best, the other virtually no effort at all, but both are equally delicious and work extremely well when combined together.
Let’s start with artichokes—the globe variety, not Jerusalem which come into season during Autumn. A native of the Mediterranean, the globe artichoke belongs to Compositae family of plants which also include the thistle and the cardoon. The plants are quite beautiful, like giant ferns and when fully grown, the long, arching, deeply serrated leaves can spread two metres in diameter and in height. The two main cultivars grown here are the green globe variety and purple-tipped conical variety. The “vegetable” that we eat is actually the immature flower bud.
When buying artichokes, look for firm, heavy heads with tightly-bunched leaves. To prepare them, peel off the tough outside leaves until they become very pale in colour. Cut the top third of the globe off and discard. Peel the base and two or three centimetres of the stem. Cut the heart in half and using a teaspoon, scoop out the tough, central choke. Put the prepared artichokes into verjuice or acidulated water immediately to prevent discolouration.
The simplest method of cooking artichoke hearts is in a little water and olive oil to which smashed garlic, cracked black pepper and lemon thyme have been added. Using chicken stock instead of water and olive oil will result in a much richer flavoured dish. And to incorporate the hearts into a salad, cook the artichokes in a mixture of 500ml water/100ml lemon juice or vinegar with whatever flavouring you desire for about twenty minutes. Drain and cool before using.
Preserved artichokes can be easily prepared at home and kept in the fridge. Drop the prepare hearts into a pot fill with white vinegar or equal parts lemon juice and vinegar. Bring to the boil and simmer for ten to fifteen minutes, depending on size. The artichokes should remain firm, but the base should pierce easily. Drain and dry thoroughly with a tea towel. In a large bowl mix some whole peeled garlic, herb/s of your choice, salt, pepper and olive oil (to taste). Gently toss the artichokes in the mix and transfer to sterilised jars. Fill the jars with olive oil making sure the artichokes are completely submerged. Preserved artichokes give added zing to risotto, pasta, salads and of course can find its way onto an antipasto.
Beware of serving artichokes with a treasured wine. They contain a chemical called cynarin which makes foods taste sweet and will taint a wine’s flavour. Your best bet is to match them with a herbaceous and fruity wine such as a sauvignon blanc, verdelho or pinot griggio.
For me, asparagus is THE vegetable that heralds the arrival of spring. As the days grow longer and warmer the dormant asparagus plant erupts into life sending up masses of verdant green spears through the soil into the spring sunshine. Asparagus is a perennial plant native to central and southern Europe, northern Africa and western and central Asia. It is a member of the lily family, which includes plants such as onion, garlic, leeks, turnips, lilies and gladioli. Three types of commercial asparagus are available in Australia: green, white and purple. (If you are in the area, look out for the thin, wiry, stronger flavoured wild asparagus which can be found along the banks of the Murray River.)
Green asparagus is widely available throughout spring, unlike the highly prized white variety which requires some diligent searching to procure. However, the distinctive, slightly bitter flavour of white asparagus is well worth the extra effort. White asparagus is cut while it is still under the soil. When the asparagus spears are exposed to sunlight, they first turn pink and later, the familiar green colour. With white asparagus only the very tip ever comes in to contact with the sun as it emerges from beneath the ground—ensuring it retains its anaemic pallor. White asparagus has long been considered a delicacy, particularly by Europeans, and is usually twice the price of green asparagus.
More recently, purple asparagus has become more widely available. Both the green and purple varieties share the same zesty–green leaf flavour and the choice between the two is based purely on presentation. Unfortunately the striking purple asparagus requires delicate cooking to retain its remarkable colour (steaming or quickly braised in butter are best).
To prepare green and purple asparagus is simplicity itself: hold the base of the spear and bend the head until it snaps. The tender tip is now ready to cook. The remaining woody stalks can be used to flavour soups or stocks. Purists assemble the tips in fist sized bundles and tie at two points with string to be cooked—standing up—in boiling salted water. This method allows the delicate tips to cook at a slower rate preventing overcooking. Non-purists, like myself, just drop them loose into salted boiling water for two to three minutes. Asparagus can also be tossed in oil and char-grilled on a barbeque.
White asparagus is also prepared in exactly the same manner, except you will need to peel (with a vegetable peeler) the bottom five or so centimetres of the spear which can be tough and unyielding on the outside if they are a decent thickness.
Asparagus is best served simply tossed in olive oil or butter with lashings of freshly-ground black pepper. The other classic dressing for asparagus is hollandaise. Of course, these two suggestions are only the tip of the … Asparagus? The following recipes are all proven favourites bursting with the taste of Spring.
Artichoke Soup (From Foods of Tuscany by Guiliano Bugialli)
6 large artichokes
90 g prosciutto or pancetta in one piece
2 medium-sized garlic cloves
20 sprigs Italian parsley, leaves only
4 tablespoon olive oil
2 litres chicken or beef stock
8 to 10 slices crusty white bread, lightly toasted
Clean the artichokes as described earlier and thinly slice each heart. Soak slices in acidulated water. Cut the prosciutto into tiny pieces and finely chop the garlic and parsley. Heat the oil in a heavy-based saucepan. Add the chopped prosciutto, garlic and parsley and sauté for a minute. Drain the artichokes and add them to the pan while still very wet. Season with salt and pepper, cover the pan and sauté for fifteen minutes, stirring every now again with a wooden spoon. Add the stock and continue simmering until the artichokes are soft.
To serve place a slice of toasted bread on the bottom of the bowl. Pour the soup over the top and garnish with torn basil leaves. Do not add cheese. Serves eight to ten.
Alice Water’s Asparagus and Artichoke Heart Pasta
4 large globe artichokes
Juice of 1 lemon
A handful of fresh basil leaves
3 tablespoons of butter
375 ml chicken stock
250 ml heavy cream
I tablespoon Dijon mustard
salt and pepper
tagliatelle for 4
Cut the tips from the asparagus. If they are large, cut into halves or quarters lengthwise. Prepare the artichokes. Cut the heart into eight wedges and leave them in water with the lemon juice until ready to cook. Peel and thinly slice the shallots. Cut the basil into ribbons.
Sauté the shallots in the butter. Add the chicken stock and gently reduce by about a third, then add the cream. Add the mustard and basil and salt and pepper to taste. If the sauce is too thin, reduce it a little more. Meanwhile, blanch the artichokes in boiling salted water four to five minutes until tender, then add them to the sauce. Blanch the asparagus and add them to the sauce. Add the cooked pasta to the sauce and toss well. Serves four.
Asparagus and Rice Soup (From Modern Italian Food by Stefano de Pieri)
300g fresh asparagus cut into 1 cm pieces
200g aborio rice
1 small brown onion
1 medium-sized potato
2 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoon olive oil
2 litres hot chicken stock
salt and freshly ground pepper
freshly grated parmesan to taste
Heat the butter and oil in a heavy-based saucepan and cook the onion and potato until soft. Add the hot stock and bring to the boil. Add the rice and lower the heat and simmer until the rice soft. Just before the rice is ready, add the asparagus and cook for another minute or so. Season to taste and serve with freshly grated cheese to taste. Serves six to eight.
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