Sunday 24 June 2012

Have you ever cooked artichokes?

After 4 years of toiling on the artichoke patch, this first week of summer yielded the first three edible ones: pride and joy!

I love artichokes, and it is quite difficult to find them here in the UK... a few years ago, when staying at Bangors Organic in Cornwall, Gill served them for dinner: whole, just steamed (or boiled?) with a butter serving - de-li-cio-us! So, before leaving, I was eager to ask for some to take away, I mean, we were ready to buy some! When we went back more recently, Neil recognised us as the people who asked for the artichokes - he said he was surprised by the request at the time! I like to think that that episode might have contributed to spark off the idea to open an organic farmers' market at their place, The Big Green Shed, which they have inaugurated this month.

Fast forward to now, here are my artichokes, just back from the plot: don't they look appetizing?

If that was a new veg for me, I'd feel intimidated how to approach it... how do you pick, clean and eat? Any safety concerns?

I was like that with gooseberries when I first saw them... now I love them, thorns and all! I was not yet entirely comfortable with artichoke in the field, either: when are they ready to pick? Now I know: the leaves need to be starting to come apart.

For those that have never cooked with artichokes, I have asked Gianfranco to take some pictures of me cleaning them: nobody should be put off such a lovely veg! They are fairly quick to deal with when you know how: it took me 48 mins from basket to plate, with taking pictures and all. Pictures from all steps are on Flickr, I copy here the essential ones to keep it shorter.

First thing to know, is that artichokes oxidise and go unappealingly brown as soon as cut, unless kept in acidic conditions, which in my family we do by washing and keeping in water in which lemon has been squeezed.

Second thing to know if you do not want to be put off from ever eating artichokes again is: the tasty bit is the heart, all the rest is basically a way for the plant to discourage pests eating it (humans as well) you have to be absolutely ruthless with what you take away - everything that feels like cutting into cardboard, anything spiny and the choke need to go.

I start by pulling out the external leaves. The smallish ones are composted, while the bigger ones can be used later - take care to keep them whole at the base. As soon as they are off, put in lemon & water. Everything that is green at the base is off, you have to be left with yellow and red.

If the stalk is not too woody, you can keep it on for cooked recipes, but have to peel it (up to the first leaves' remains). It's not too good in raw recipes, so you can keep it for later together with the leaves.

Take the top of the leaves off. I have left too many tougher leaves (see the greenness there?): always tempted to keep as much as possible - this is the time to take them off, really. Also, you have to decide how high up to cut depending on how tough those internal leaves are.

Half the heart and then quarter it.

Remove the choke. There is a line where the blade goes in easily at the bottom of the fluffy choke. Do not cut into the flesh, that's what you eat! Take away all the internal spiny leaves too: they look deceptively innocuous. Get them in the water & lemon asap to avoid discolouration.

Ready for eating!

I love them raw, sliced with salt, extravergin olive oil and lemon. Also delicious sliced and deep fried in a batter of egg, dusting of flour, lightly salted: OH granny's Easter speciality.

This time, I braised them in lemon juice after lightly frying with garlic & chilli. Stirred in a few fresh basil leaves, chopped. Et voila!

I kept the tough leaves in acidic water until next day & boiled until tender: the fleshy bit goes green and you can see veins. Holding the leaf at the top, you can dip them in butter and scoop out the flesh with your teeth (guilty pleasure, that's how I ate them at Gill's back then).

My aunty, more refinedly, scoops them out with a spoon to make puree.

How will you cook them?

Sunday 17 June 2012

What can you do with lemon balm? And other plants

There are plants that I introduced once on the plot and now grow largely unasked. Their weedy behaviour means they multiply and tend happily to survive slug attack. They are usually loved by pollinators.

It's a pity to weed them out, given their success, so I have decided to find a use for them. I refer in particular to three plants: opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), borage (Borago officinalis) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Let's forget the poppy for a moment, but when a plant has 'officinalis' in its name it means it has been used in herbalism as a medicine - it's not just a pretty flower.

Opium poppy, I discovered a couple of autumns ago, is the very useful source of poppy seed.

I love poppy seeds in my bread, so I have been collecting them for the last couple of years, trying them both as is and dry toasted. Number one plant sorted.

By the way, not all poppies have edible seeds, but the opium poppy (whose seedpod milky sap incidentally will make opium, the reason why the plant was introduced in England, then becoming naturalised) is THE ONE. Warning: apparently, if you eat too many you might test positive for opium.

Oh, and the seedheads make lovely winter display in a bunch at home.

Then, earlier this month, I tried borage leaves.

Borage leaves are used in Genoese cuisine to make pasta filling, and I liked them cooked, tasting very much like nettles. They can be also eaten raw in salads, taste apparently cucumber-like, but need chopping finely, they are so hairy.

It turned out, however, that they contain an alkaloid poisonous to the liver, so eating too many is not a good idea. Number two plant not really sorted.

But they can be used as green manure as the taproot accesses nutrients deep in the ground - that's sort of how I had used them in the past. And of course bees adore the flowers, which can be safely eaten, and are usually added to ice cubes as drink decoration.
Interesting fact: with seeds they make starflower oil, a GLA supplement.

Finally, I decided to tackle the tons of lemon balm on the plot. Lovely smell, but they grow in every nooks and crannies!

First search yielded tea recipes to be made with fresh or dried leaves. That would not however sort the quantity issue for me. Then, my friend Carl suggested I have a look at the Plant for the Future database: a note at the bottom of the page indicated you could make pesto. Eureka! Search online for lemon balm pesto and you will find an abundance of recipes. I went for lemon balm, walnuts, garlic and parmigiano cheese, then soak in extravirgin olive oil. On pasta, it did pass the husband test, and it is fairly quick to prepare. Here's how it looked at the various stages:


Ready and soaked in oil

Lemon balm pesto linguine

Friday 15 June 2012

Totally undeserved yet humbly accepted Liebster Blog Award

My lovely friend Carl Legge, truly generous as he is, did think about my ailing blog when making nominations for the Liebster Blog Award, in an attempt to encourage me to write more.

Thank you Carl, I am honoured by the nomination and humbled - would love to blog more, even though at the moment I seem to be lacking inspiration - and, most of all, time. 
All my free time I spend keeping the plot tidy (endless pursuit as it is), studying horticulture (in order to be able to do more effective plot-tidying...) and translating into English an Italian recipe book of the organic, "real food" persuasion (you have to use up all that produce in the end!). 

But I will, Carl, I'll come back and write about what I've learnt: you are an inspiration with your thorough understanding and openness to sharing.

In the meantime, I keep the picture albums and the interesting links up to date, as that is less time consuming. And I sometimes tweet about my allotment.

The Liebster Blog Award comes with some rules:
  • Thank the person that gave you the award in a post on your own site
  • Nominate up to five blogs with less than 200 followers
  • Let the nominees know they’ve won by leaving a comment on one of their posts
  • Add the Liebster image so all your readers know that you are a recipient.
Bad enough at thanking people, I'm even worse at reading blogs - talk about going out of my comfort zone! Really, I do not read blogs regularly. I follow links on Twitter and search on Google, that's about what I can manage in between all the rest, and how I find interesting content, and people.
Besides, any blogs I have occasionally followed have far more than 200 followers: Carl's Llynlines with his allround sustainable life pursuit, Saidos da Concha with Constanca's home made life,  Il pasto nudo with Sonia's "rebirth" in real food...

Promise I will look out for a couple of blogs with fewer followers, nominate them and let you all know... and you could suggest some for me to have a look at?