The hungry gap has been shorter than usual this year, but we are still in the slim pickings phase of the new round of harvesting. The spring cabbages are over. The remainder of last season’s kales have all gone to flower, as have the beetroot, their gargantuan roots now tough and woody. We have eaten our fill and fill of chard. And so we have been watching very closely to see when the first of the real spring vegetables will appear.
From the Instagram feeds of restaurants and foodies you would think that late spring began in late February, since that was when the posts of asparagus, broad beans, peas, artichokes and even courgettes started appearing. At that time of year I just know that most of those vegetables will have come from the polytunnels of Spain, perhaps southern Italy or even further afield, and I always feel rather duped by the promise of early summer they make when in reality it is only now that those vegetables are starting to make an appearance in British gardens and farmer’s markets.
While friends in the neighbourhood are desperately offloading their excessive gluts of asparagus harvest ours – always keenly awaited, always deeply disappointing – has provided us with just a handful of meagre meals as is customary. But we had our first meal of broad beans last weekend, with many more promised and in just the past few days, perhaps in response to the heavy rains, the first of artichokes have appeared.
I often get my timing wrong with artichokes. Just a little too greedy, I always leave them a bit longer for a fatter heart, but then find that the heart has become fibrous and inedible. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere. Recipes often demand the use of fresh young artichokes above all others, and this recipe should only be made with the youngest, as the cooking time is so short. In the past I have shied away from preparing the numbers I imagine are required to feed hungry mouths, but with so little novelty in the kitchen garden right now this morning I harvested every one, intent on doing them justice.Twelve small artichokes, each the size of a golf ball, did not take as long to prepare as I had feared, and looked satisfyingly like the ones you buy in jars of oil from the deli.
When the weather gets warmer my thoughts turn to fried food in a way that never happens in winter and combined with aioli I am instantly transported to the south of France. It is delicious made with the first of the sweet, new season garlic, which is just appearing. Artichokes and chickpeas have an affinity, with their complementary earthy flavours, and the inspiration for the chickpea batter came from a memorable farinata con carciofi made from The River Café Green cookbook.
If you have neither the time nor the inclination to make mayonnaise. from scratch buy the best you can afford and add the garlic and herbs. Use frozen or tinned, well-drained artichoke hearts as well and this recipe is the work of minutes.
12 small artichokes (ideally with stalk attached)
The juice of one and a half lemons
125g chickpea flour
125ml warm water
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon baking powder
The white of one egg
The yolk of one egg
160ml olive oil
1 large clove new season garlic
2 stems of tarragon, leaves removed and finely chopped
The juice of half a lemon
1 litre rapeseed oil for frying
Put the first lot of lemon juice into a bowl of cold water. Tear the tough outer leaves from the artichokes until the pale, tender inner leaves are revealed. Cut off the spiny upper half of the flower with a very sharp knife and discard. Peel the stalk and trim to about 2 cm. Cut in half lengthwise. If there is any choke visible scrape it out with the tip of a teaspoon. Drop into the bowl of acidulated water as you go.
Make the batter. Put the chick pea flour, salt, baking powder and cayenne pepper into a bowl. Slowly add the water, stirring all the time. Beat to remove any lumps. Leave to stand for 30 minutes to thicken.
Make the aioli. Put the garlic in a mortar and pestle with a good pinch of salt and crush until it becomes a cream. Add the egg yolk and stir well. Start adding the olive oil a just few drops at a time, while continually stirring with the pestle. As the mixture starts to thicken start adding the oil in a steady trickle, always stirring, until a thick, gelatinous texture is achieved. Stir in a little lemon juice, the chopped tarragon and more salt to taste. Put into a serving bowl.
Put the rapeseed oil in a pan which gives a depth of oil of around 4cm. Heat until a cube of bread dropped into it browns within a minute.
Beat the egg white until it forms soft peaks. Add to the chick pea batter and fold in gently.
Drain the artichokes and dry them well. I put them in a salad spinner. Drop them into the batter and stir so that they are all coated.
Remove the artichokes one at a time from the batter with tongs, allowing as much as possible to run off them. Carefully put the artichokes into the hot oil in batches of three or four, being careful not to overcrowd them. Turn them after about a minute and a half and fry for a further minute or two until a rich golden brown. Remove from the oil and drain on absorbent towel for a few seconds before transferring to a serving plate .
They taste best eaten standing up with a drink as they come out of the pan, but you keep them warm in a low oven while you cook the rest, if you prefer.
Recipe and photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 21 May 2022