With the chill of February comes tighter, finer artichokes ranging from the size of a baby's fist to gargantuan bowl fillers perfect for plucking, leaf by leaf, and dunking into mayonnaise or melted butter before delving spoon first into the unopened flower, the inedible 'choke', and the soft, giving heart beneath.
They are often seen as difficult to prepare but are far from it. A little fiddly, perhaps, and you would do well to have a large bowl ready for the discarded leaves but they just ask a little more time and a dab of lemon juice every now and then to stop them browning. You'll have the hang of it by the second one and the end product is well worth the effort.
Carciofi alla Romana (Stuffed, braised artichokes)
Start by filling a large bowl with water and squeezing in the juice of half a lemon.
Now take your first artichoke, you’ll need large ones for this, and pull off it’s tough outer leaves until you’re down to the sweet, pale green and mauve leaves inside. If you're not sure you've taken enough off remove some more, anything you leave may turn out to be tough.
Using a bread knife saw off almost all of the leaves, leaving just an inch or so, and discard. Take a teaspoon and plunge it into the middle of the flower. Scraping around with the edge of the spoon, remove the fine hairs from the centre of the heart and get rid of those too. Finally, using a small, sharp knife and a vegetable peeler remove the tough skin from the base of the heart (where you remove the first leaves from) until it is a fresh, pale cream and the stringy skin from the stalk. Work quickly, dabbing with lemon juice while you hack away, and then quickly put the prepared hearts into the bowl of water to stop them discolouring. If they bob around too much put a small plate on top of them to keep them submerged.
Once you've finished trimming your hearts finely chop a whole bunch of parsley, a few cloves of garlic and as much lemon zest as you like. Season. One by one, take the hearts from the water and spoon some of the mix into the hole where the choke once was, sharing it out until it's all used up. If you find you have a little too much pull back some of the leaves and poke the stuffing in.
In a small saucepan, that the artichokes will fit in close enough so that they don't fall over, pour half a glass of white wine, the same amount of water, one shallot, halved, a few, whole black peppercorns, a bay leaf, a good amount of quality olive oil and a strip of lemon peel. Add the artichokes, stem end down and place on a high heat. As soon as the wine begins to boil turn the heat right down (use a heat diffuser mat if you have one) and clap a lid on the pan.
Cook for roughly 40 minutes, depending on the size of your thistles, until they are as soft as butter. Remove them from the pan and reduce down any juices that may be left to form a thin jus.
Serve warm, topped with fried breadcrumbs and a slug of extra virgin olive oil.