Meal Times: Ancient Meals for Modern Cooks -    ⋄ Meal Times: Ancient Foods for Modern Cooks ⋄   
 
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Artichokes aren't a great crop for a tiny veggie patch, but if you have the space, the plants are heraldically spectacular. (They grow over a yard high and wide, with long, deeply-serrated leaves.) The first flowering spike often dies back after it has produced its yearly crop of buds, but, with any luck, small plants (offsets)  will develop around the base of the original plants, and eventually your tiny seedling will turn into a multi-stemmed monster (a bit like rhubarb, but BIGGER.) If you're lucky, the resulting clump of artichoke stems will flourish for years, producing multiple buds in spring for you to snap off and cook.

(You already knew that the bits we eat are the flower buds, didn't you? And that if you don't pick them, the buds will develop into huge prickly purple thistle flowers? And, indeed, that artichokes are edible thistles, domesticated in North Africa and loved by the Romans? Of course you did!)

But beware. Just as artichokes are a delicacy for us humans, the leaves are apparently considered delicious by a whole range of bugs. Mine had a bad attack of aphids this year (far too many for my resident ladybirds to control), followed by leaf miners. I pruned off the oldest, biggest and worst-infested leaves, squashed the aphids on the younger, less affected (which took more hours than you can imagine,) baited the ants again (the Argentine ant supercolony here loves to farm aphids on my plants), and studiously ignored the leaf miners.

I don't know how commercial growers get the HUGE buds that you see in stores. Mine never reach anything like that size; they're more like golf balls than tennis balls. But the first bud on a plant - the first one, on the tallest stalk of the plant - is always the biggest. (Once you pick it, the plant will develop smaller buds on all the side shoots.) You have to use your judgement about when to pick any of them, but err on the side of small and delicate. Remember that the true delicacy is the baby artichoke. And, if you pick them as babies, you'll never have to worry about cleaning the hairy inedible choke out of the middle of the bud. (If you ever have to do it, just cheat by cutting the artichoke in half, then use a sharp teaspoon to scrape out the spiky fluff.)

To pick your artichokes, just snap the buds off the stem, one by one, leaving as much stem attached to each of them as you can without also picking the next teensy baby buds further down the stem, and take them inside to cook.

If you're the sort of person who orders whole artichokes in restaurants and carefully tooth-scrapes the edible bit from the base of the outer leaves until you reach the delicious heart, you get the award for patience. I prefer to trim them right down to one delicious bite-size before I cook them.

Starting with baby artichokes (golf-ball-sized) makes the whole process very simple. Start with your just-picked artichokes soaking in clean water, to flush out any insects hiding between the "petals" of the buds. Drain them. You will need a saucepan big enough to hold about 1/4 of the bulk of the buds, after you've trimmed them. (Yes, you lose a lot. It's good for the compost, though.)

Put water about one and a half inches deep into that saucepan, and a big splash of decent vinegar - preferably cider or white wine vinegar. Then pick up one of the artichokes and start snapping off the leaves, working from the base. After a while, you'll find that the leaves change: they'll be more vertical, and mostly yellow, tinged with green at the top. Stop pulling the leaves off at that point. Cut off the top 1/3 of the bud, and pare off the hairy green outside skin of the base and the attached stem, and any damaged bits. (The stem near the bud is just as delicious as the artichoke heart.) The artichoke flesh oxidizes to dark grey very fast. As soon as it looks cute enough, drop it into the water-and-vinegar mix. Then pick up the next one, and the next, and the next. If any of them are bigger than bite-size, you can cut them in half, or even quarters, lengthwise. When you've done them all, bring the water in the pan to a gentle boil, and simmer for ten minutes. Leave the artichokes to cool in the saucepan for a while, then drain them into a pretty dish and pour some fairly decent olive oil over them as a lovely glistening coating. You can add salt and pepper then or later. Then put them in the fridge. They seem to taste better once they're cold, and even better the next day.

You could add them to salads, but you'll probably find that there are fewer in the dish every time you open the fridge, and by the time you come to construct the salad, there's only ever one artichoke left. (I blame the fridge elves.) 

--Jenny

 
According to ancient medical expert Galen, bear meat should be boiled twice before eating. Erk erk erk.

(This horrifying fact brought to you via Food in the Ancient World from A-Z by food historian extraordinaire, Andrew Dalby.)

- Jenny
 
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Forget the people who tell you to start gardening with radishes or carrots. Snow peas are much nicer than radishes or carrots, and they're easy peasy - the easiest and most rewarding of vegetables to grow. They're usually ridiculously expensive to buy, mostly because they need careful manual picking every day or two. Harvesting machines won't work! But that's not a problem at home.

If you can grow sweet peas, you can grow snow peas. The seeds are large, reliable and easy to plant, so there's no advantage in buying seedlings. Just get an inexpensive packet of snow pea seeds, and check the right time to plant them for your area, then put them in a sunny spot with a sturdy trellis for them to grow up - just like you would with sweet peas. When the seeds sprout, you might need to protect them from foraging birds, because the sprouts are tender and delicious. The baby plants will soon twine up their support, and in a few weeks you will see white flowers. They're not fragrant and pretty like sweet peas, but each of them will develop into a lovely crisp snow pea. Yum! Pick them when they are about the length of your index finger, and they will be incredibly sweet and delicious. At first it will take a few days to collect enough to make a meal, but keep picking them, and they will produce more and more.

It's a good idea to start a new batch of plants in another sunny spot a few weeks after you plant the first batch. It's insurance in case bad weather or inconvenient animals destroy the first batch. Also, you will need to plant a replacement for the snow pea plants, sooner or later. Snow peas won't live for more than a couple of months. The older leaves and the stems will get dried and yellow, and look mottled and nasty. When they stop producing, just pull out the old plants and put them in the compost.

COOKING

You may find that you don't need to cook the snow peas, because people in the household munch them down all raw and crunchy before you get a chance.

If you do want to cook them, be sure not to overcook. Different people like different levels of trimming, and different levels of cooking. At a minimal level, you can wash them and put them in a heatproof bowl, then pour boiling water over them and leave them for a few minutes before draining and eating. Some people may want to pull or cut the tops and tails off them. Some people may want to microwave them (in water, or else they go yellow and soggy) for a minute or two. Some people may want to steam them. And they are delicious thrown into a soup, stew or pasta sauce a few minutes before serving.

- Jenny

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    Eric T. Reynolds
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