ARTICHOKES

4 December 2011

Food fashions move in cycles. After cooking for over 20 years, I can look as the cutting edge of cuisine and see all the myriad sources it draws upon. Cooking is evolutionary. Right now it’s a glorious combination of deconstruction and naturalism. This is shape- and texture-based cooking.

In the fancy diners around town you’ll find capsicums turned into gelatinous balls, pastry broken into dust, and more foams than you can point a cream gun at. This is all man-over-nature cooking, where the chef attempts to control the very substance of his ingredients. It was hugely popular in the late 1960’s.

Ironically, this current fashion is partnered by a simultaneous movement towards home-grown and bespoke ingredients. This is paddock-to-plate, a huge hit in the 1980’s. The top chefs are starting their own garden patches in which they can produce heirloom and rare fruits, vegetables and herbs. In an effort to use every last offering of the garden, flowers are making their way back to the plate.

There was a big fashion for edible flowers in the mid 1990’s when everything came with violets and nasturtiums. These days it’s more exotic: borage, calendula and savoury.

But some flowers have been table-staples throughout history. Like the artichoke. The bits we eat are the stem and petals of immature North African thistle flowers. The name artichoke comes from the Arabic ‘al kharshuf’, meaning thorny. There are many varieties but the culinary rules are usually the same. Artichokes are devilishly tough, so they need to be cooked gently until softened.

The cooked leathery outer petals are commonly dipped into sauces and the inner flesh is scraped off with your teeth. Delicious, if a little inelegant.

The stems (or hearts) are trimmed of the spiky unformed florets called the choke, then peeled and poached. Most fresh artichokes have only a short shelf life once cooked, and the process of preparation is laborious. As a result, most consumers rely on the prepared artichokes available in supermarkets and delicatessens.

Regardless of fashion, artichokes are one flower that you’ll always find in a kitchen. But I reckon these modern chefs are on to something with their kitchen gardens. So, I’ve planted my artichokes, and I’ll wait for summer for the crop to mature. Who’d have thought I’d be so vogue?

Chargrilled pork cutlet with grilled apple and artichoke/

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