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This recipe, from Richard Olney ’s Simple French Food, requires you to “turn” an artichoke. I realise that “turning” artichokes, or paring away the fibre to leave the heart, may be unfamiliar territory. Most home cooks have never bothered to learn this little skill, either not eating them at all or just boiling the hell out of them and serving with vinaigrette and melted butter.
Alarmingly, I am not sure if today’s chefs can be bothered to turn artichokes either. On a recent episode of MasterChef: The Professionals, contestants were asked to perform the task and most failed abysmally. It is now possible to buy frozen turned artichoke bottoms and if you see an artichoke purée or soup on a menu it will probably be either a Jerusalem artichoke — no relation — or made with these convenient but inglorious comestibles. When the professionals give up on something, it is time for the amateur to pick up the standard.
It is not so difficult. Except for one thing: the white artichoke heart discolours quickly and will become black if nothing is done about it. Traditionally, one dips it in a vinegar solution or lemon juice; you can also cook it in a blanc (don’t ask: Olney says this produces “one of the characteristic and recurrent flavours of international hotel cooking in which the native qualities of the artichoke are hopelessly perverted”) or coat it in olive oil, as in this recipe. The modern way is to soak them in ascorbic acid (vitamin C), which keeps them beautifully white and is pretty much flavourless. If you don’t have any, simply rub them with a cut lemon and coat in olive oil.
Many of Olney’s recipes were formed from his deep knowledge of Provence. This is a simple dish of artichokes cooked with bread, onions and garlic but it has an addictive savoury quality. Olney comments: “The surface, sides and bottom should form a richly golden brown encasement and within, the layer of artichoke slices should be of a white tenderness in their voluptuous and alliaceous sheath.” You can’t say fairer than that.
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Four decent artichokes will prove enough for a lunch or supper dish for four or an accompaniment for six. The gratin tastes best warm, half an hour after leaving the oven.
|125g||dry bread, crusts removed|
|2||large cloves garlic|
|2||heaped tbs chopped parsley|
- Cut the bread into small cubes and soak for 10 minutes in hot water. Drain and squeeze out as much water as possible and then chop the bread into a sort of meal. Add the finely chopped onion, garlic and parsley and season well with salt and pepper. Coat the bottom of a gratin dish (I used a 30cm oval dish but smaller will work) with a film of olive oil.
- To turn the artichokes, you will need two knives, a large serrated knife and a small, sharp paring knife. The former is needed to cut across the base — after you have snapped off the stalk, pulling stringy fibres out of the heart as you do so — and then across the top of the heart to get rid of all the top part of the artichoke, which is devoid of interest. Then you work away with the paring knife, holding the artichoke in your left hand and paring away with a rounded action all the green and fibrous matter around the artichoke.
- After doing so, cut them in half vertically and remove the hairy “choke” with a teaspoon. Turn them so the cut side is down and cut the hearts, vertically again, into half-centimetre slices, turning them in the olive oil as you proceed.
- To make the gratin, lay half of the bread mixture tightly over the base of the gratin dish. Lay the (seasoned) artichoke slices on top, packing them tightly and forming a single, flat layer, retaining a little of the oil. Place the remaining bread mixture over the top, spreading it evenly and tamping it down to make a flat screed. Cover with the Parmesan cheese and then sprinkle with the remaining olive oil. Bake in a hot oven (220C) for 15 minutes and then turn down the heat to 160C for another 50 minutes, keeping an eye that it does not burn.
Artichokes are notoriously difficult to match. Olney, whose wine choices were precise but occasionally eccentric, has no problem recommending a light white wine from the Loire Valley with most artichoke dishes.
Photographs: Andy Sewell