Artichoke, Globe

2 October 2012

"A perennial vegetable related to the thistle...reputed to be an aphrodisiac, and women were forbidden to eat it"
 The 'Globe' part of the title is important: back when we were running the café, we used to regularly make soup from the unrelated but weirdly similar-tasting Jerusalem artichokes. One morning, when neither of us was in, the supplier sent globes instead - and the person in charge of making the soup that day, having never seen a globe artichoke before, went ahead and threw it in the pot. She did of course have some misgivings about it, and thankfully kept it back for us to taste. The result, somehow, looked and even tasted right, and felt perfectly smooth in the mouth - but after swallowing a couple of spoonfuls, a tickle in the back of the throat gave way to a scratchy sensation, becoming more and more intense until it felt like a mouthful of splinters.

The 'choke' lurking inside looks fuzzy, rather than spiny, but if you've ever eaten some accidentally, you'll know the feeling I mean. Left undisturbed, this is the part that goes on to form the artichoke's beautiful flower.* In smaller, younger artichokes, Larousse says, the choke isn't fully formed and doesn't need to be removed. I've only ever seen the familiar large green type on sale, but Larousse has pictures of several different-sized cultivars, with leaves shot through with violet, and bulging or delicately elongated buds.

In search of one of these less-known breeds, we get on the Clipper (one of the privileges of living all the way out in Woolwich) and head up the Thames to Maltby Street. Here, under the railway arches near the site of the original market, is Tayshaw - a wonderful greengrocer, only open to the public on Saturday mornings. It's not such a well-kept secret as when we first discovered it - in fact, we end up queueing for rather a long time - but still well worth a visit if you find yourself in need of exotic fruit or mystery vegetables.

Sure enough, even though it's the end of the season, they have two varieties on sale: alongside the usual green Italian artichokes are two boxes of these 'Petit Violet' from France - much smaller than their cousins and rather egg-shaped, with a rich purple blush at the base of their leaves.

Since we've come all this way, we also pay a visit to St John for a custard doughnut, La Grotta for nearly-as-good-as-my-mum's damson and fig ice creams, and The Kernel for some of the best beer in the city, picking up a few bits and pieces of cheese and cured meat on the way.

They were as good as they look. But the caramel doughnuts at the St John Hotel are better yet.

Back home, I tackle the Violets. Normally, with a large artichoke, I'd just steam or boil it whole, then pluck off the leaves to nibble at with vinaigrette or hollandaise. Since Larousse says the leaves of smaller artichokes can be eaten whole, I want to try something different. So as instructed, I trim off the stalks and the outer, tougher leaves, cut them into quarters and scrape out the tiny choke with the tip of a knife, then snip the top third of the leaves off before throwing them into acidulated water to stop them blackening.

I briefly boil them, while some finely chopped shallots soften gently in butter, then turn up the heat and sauté all together until they start to brown. A spoonful of flour to make a roux, then a splash of white wine and some stock, and finally a squeeze of lemon juice, make a glossy, sharp sauce, that I think should pair beautifully with the sweet earthiness of artichoke.

Sadly the artichokes themselves are a bit of a let down - whether because they're past their best, or perhaps something I did - a little bitter, but without much flavour otherwise, and some of the leaves are still stringy and tough. The sauce at least is delicious, and I end up drinking it straight from the bowl.

Luckily, I also brought home a large, green globe, so I have another chance at glory. I'll tell you all about it next time.

*Botany nerds: I know, they are florets, not a flower. And the 'leaves' are actually bracts. Etc. 


21 September 2012

"Meat, poultry, or fish broth served hot or cold as a soup course"
I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that Larousse has 29 different recipes for consommé - this is classic French cuisine after all, the sort of word that belongs on the menus of grand (or just plain stuffy) hotels.

Of course, I've made clear broths before: dashi, the intensely savoury Japanese stock, from ribbons of dried bonito and giant sheets of kelp; or more recently a light vegetable stock with a splash of cider, with cubes of home-cured pork belly and wild garlic leaves thrown in. But I've never made a consommé. In fact I don't think I've ever even eaten (drunk?) a consommé. After all, when would I go to that kind of restaurant?

What elevates the humble broth to a consommé is the meticulous process of clarifying and reduction, which is meant to give a perfectly clear liquid, free of fat, but with a rich mouth feel from the gelatin remaining in the stock. In fact, Larousse suggests chilling consommé to form a jelly and serving it diced, which sounds fairly unpleasant.

Insert stock pun here

Like many classics, it takes time. I started on Thursday, fitting the preparation around work, a university reunion and resultant hangover, my flatmates' cooking; it's now Sunday night and I am getting hungry, and much more in the mood for a bacon sandwich than a clear soup. But the result is exquisite and aromatic, like a richly savoury tea, and surprisingly filling. I served it with poached chicken quenelles and a parsley leaf - the clear yellow broth delicate enough to pick up the astringent freshness of the parsley.

It all starts with the jointing of a chicken, yet another thing I've never actually done. 'Nothing to be afraid of', Delia says briskly, and she's quite right. I cut it into quarters, and filleted the breasts and thighs - the rest went into the pot for the stock, together with the usual stock vegetables and some rosemary 'foraged' from the nearby gardens. After bringing to the boil, skimming, and simmering gently for a couple of hours, it went into the fridge overnight to let the fat rise to the surface.

Tasty tasty meat paste
While the stock came gently to the boil, the breast and thigh meat went into the blender, loosened with a little double cream, until I had a pinkish paste that would look equally at home in a Chicken McNugget as in haute cuisine. Really for the finest texture this should be pushed through a sieve, but I just couldn't face it.

Larousse uses beef suet as a base, but not having any to hand, I made a choux paste instead, boiling butter and water together before beating in the flour, followed by two yolks and two whole eggs (Normally you'd just use whole eggs; I kept back two egg whites to clarify the soup). A little salt and nutmeg, before mixing about half in with the chicken purée, and back into the fridge. The rest of the paste I later turned into gougères for a pre-dinner snack.

I did say it was unappetising. But you looked anyway.
A couple of days later, and it's time to clarify the stock. The traditional method is to gently boil the stock with an 'egg raft' of egg white, diced vegetables and ground meat, which is coagulates in the pot and enmeshes the fats, protein, and suspended solids that make it cloudy. Modern cuisine has found a number of different ways to achieve the same effect, but Larousse naturally brooks no truck with these upstarts.

So on the heat it all goes, for another couple of hours, as the egg white mixture turns from foam, to scum, to clumps, looking progressively more unappetising as it goes. But when drained through a damp tea towel - bliss! A perfectly clear, yellowish broth, with a taste somehow both clean and rich.

Time then to pull the quenelle mix out of the fridge, shape (clumsily) between two spoons, and drop into gently boiling water for 20 mins or so, before placing into bowls and ladling the broth around them. A garnish of a single parsley leaf, and it's finally dinner time.

Et voilà

The result, as I said, was rather fine: savoury, aromatic, elegant and pure in colour and taste. The quenelles were deliciously chickeny, if I may use that word, but seemed a little coarse by comparison. Next time - and there will be a next time, despite all the moaning about how hungry I was by the time I got to eat it - just a teacupful of the pure broth by itself would be all that's needed to signal the start of something special.


26 August 2012

I have the 2009 edition. I picked it up for a song on a market stall 3 years ago and have barely opened it since.
I've always thought I don't use my recipe books enough.

Of all the books on the shelf, I'm pretty sure I look at my Larousse Gastronomique least of all. Why go to the trouble of hauling 3 kilograms of book off the shelf, when Google is right there in my pocket? At least I'm in good company: It's been voted "most useless cookbook"; and the best the Guardian could say about it was that it "makes a great kitchen doorstop". (I can't believe I still remembered this review 10 years later, and then still bought the thing!)

So why am I doing this? I'm fed up of carting it across London for no reason each time I move house. I want to force myself to learn some of the old school, fiddly techniques that I've been avoiding. Sheer bloody mindedness.

Initially, I wanted to start at the beginning and work my way through alphabetically. However, I soon realised that with over 4000 entries to cover, I was unlikely to make it to Zuppa Inglese before the eventual heat death of the universe. So I am going to tackle it at random; one entry at a time, however unlikely or unpalatable.

Of course there will be exceptions. If something isn't seasonal, I'll file it away for later; or if something comes into season and I just have to write about it, then I will. It's my blog. Go away.

Entries I'm looking forward to:
  • Butter
  • Whisky
  • Choux pastry
  • Cheese
  • Cholesterol poisoning

Entries I am not looking forward to:
  • Brain: Offal is fine, this is just a step too far. See also: bollocks.
  • Donkey: "The meat is blackish, the fat verging on yellow". Yum. Also, poor Eeyore.
  • Sea urchin: I had a bad experience once, and do not want to go there again. But I will if I have to. For Science.