By Niel Vaughan

    Not top of the pops for easy-to-cook veggies. But there is a reason why the artichoke has been cultivated and pondered since the time of Homer.

    It might be because these armoured ambassadors of Spring have some of the highest antioxidant capacities of all vegetables. It might be because they are great for making herbal teas, punchy liqueurs and suave Negronis. But it might just be because when prepared well, they express some of the most delicate and wholesome flavours on Mother Earth.

    The wild and original form of the artichoke is still cultivated in Northern Africa. But the domesticated form comes from the Tudor Henry VIII’s garden in the Netherlands and introduced to England during his rule. French immigrants planted them in Louisiana and the Spanish took them to California.

    One popular Roman-Jewish-style recipe is a deep-fried whole baby artichoke. In contrast to this, thinly sliced soft, raw, parts dressed in lemon and olive oil is as delicate as sea urchin. Or, if you prefer, dip one leaf at a time in oil and vinegar and nibble the memories of fresh mornings. Perfect when served cold on a hot summer table.

    In Italian cuisine, artichoke hearts in olive oil are the vegetables of the Spring section of the Four Seasons pizza; with olives for summer, mushrooms for autumn and prosciutto for winter.

    It makes sense that a companion plant like the artichoke would come under medical scrutiny. Artichoke leaf extract has been investigated for its potential to lower cholesterol levels. A friendly counterpoint to a rich meal.

    Young artichokes are preferred for their tenderness, especially when eaten raw or steamed. Cut artichokes tend to turn colour due to enzymatic browning and chlorophyll oxidation. To prevent this, cover with slightly acidified water, vinegar or lemon. For a quick cook, trim, blanch and saute in a hot pan with butter or oil.

    Happy Spring days end with memorable meals.

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