Perspective. So much of our experience of this thing we call life is coloured by it. Where some people see problems stacking up against their business as the economy rollercoasters, others see new opportunities presented by the challenging times. I love travel, focusing on the new people I get to meet, the new foods I get to eat, and the lovely photos I can capture; a good friend considers travel to be some sort of mediaeval torture full of funny foreign food, annoying strangers, and inconvenient transport. Where my mother heard meaningless, primitive, thump-thump noise, my teenage self heard adrenalin, sex and lyrics that expressed my gentle teenage rebellion (i.e. black nailpolish and lipstick!). Where my husband sees an ugly broken cupboard in a junk shop with flaking paint, I see a covetable photographic background for blog photoshoots.
It’s all a matter of perspective.
Consider the dandelion. I see it as a total nuisance – a weed with a cheeky yellow flower sent specifically to mock me and then clog up my lawn with its invasive roots and spoil the grass I have worked so hard to nurture. My friend Sally, on the other hand, sees it as a salad waiting to be picked. Or the little yellow-flowered plants on the walk to our station that most passers-by regard with contempt as just another east-end weed, but that I secretly know to be the pepperiest wild rocket in London. Or the nettle (one of the first plants I swore at shortly after my arrival in London as it brushed past my hand setting off those mini-electric shock tingles in my skin that lasted for hours): I regard it as a bloody menace, positively dangerous – while others regard it as the basis for delicious soups and teas.
The artichoke falls into much the same category. I mean when you get down to brass tacks, it’s a thistle: one of those prickly, unfriendly weeds that grow wild in the English countryside and whose prickly demeanour is not softened one bit by the spiky geometry of their purple flowers. So yes, to some it’s a weed. But grow the right variety – and to others it’s a sought-after delicacy, to be carefully prepared and then dipped leaf by leaf into melted butter and messily, delightfully consumed. So who decides what is a weed and what is a delicacy? Probably the first (brave! or desperate?) man who hit upon the idea of boiling up the big spiky flowers and taking a tentative bite
Given how much he loves them, I do believe that the abovementioned man may have been a distant ancestor of my husband’s. Nick totally delights in the entire process, from carefully selecting The Right Artichoke at the market, to the challenges of keeping the damn things submerged as they boil, to the making of the dip, to the slow, methodical consumption of the entire flower leaf by leaf. Me? Call me lazy, but I’ve always been more of a marinated artichokes kinda girl… And I recently came into the possesion of a particularly delicious jar of marinated artichokes, courtesy of Virginia of The Good Fork, as part of one of their Intensely Italian hampers. Virginia started the Good Fork after having worked in France and Italy, returning home to England and finding it frustratingly difficult to find great authentic Mediterranean ingredients here. She set about researching European suppliers as focused on quality as she is and set up The Good Fork to provide customers in the UK with the opoporunity to order either a regular monthly or a one-off boxed delivery of Mediterranean deli goodies. You can choose from a Good Fork deli box (7 items for £28.50) or a Bigger Fork box (9 items for £35.50) – both prices include mainland UK delivery.
The box I received was a limited edition Intensely Italian one-off box (A Thoroughly French box is also available with a Festive Fork and a Gorgeous Greek in the pipeline – all priced at £39.50) and contained:
- whole black summer truffle from Ellesse
- mostarda from Barbieri & Co. (mine was mandarin)
- Sapori do Casa hand-made pappardelle pasta
- rustic marinated artichokes from La Conserve Toscane
- fregola (toasted pasta grains) from Rustichella d’Abruzzo
- crema di peperoncino piccante hot pepper sauce from Pralina
- a bar of torrone (Italian nougat)
- Occhialino salted capers from Sicily
The box also includes a handy leaflet explaining a little more about each ingredient and suggesting a few recipes. The box was ever so neatly packed and I was also pleased by the eco-friendly shredded card packing material rather than the ubiquitous buble-wrap. Although I have not yet tried all the contents, all the products impressed me with their apparent quality – these are definitely not the kind of things you will find on the shelves of your local Tesco. For what I received (if you exclude the cost to the company of postage and packaging), the price works out at an average of about £4 per item – which is not dirt cheap but works out at the same or less than retail prices of similar imported products (and of course, this box would be a luxury treat, not your weekly grocery shop!). As a Christmas gift for a foodie, it’s a wonderful idea.
The only remaining question was what I should make first! I could see a couple of meals being formed from the selection I received and the obvious first choice was to make a pasta dish. But seeing as Darling Husband had already made me pasta the night before when I got back late from speaking at Bite ‘n Write in Birmingham (bless him!), and seeing as I have some carnaroli rice that Riso Gallo sponsored for the recent Plate to Page workshop in Tuscany, I decided to go for a risotto instead. The combination of flavours was fantastic – the earthiness of the excellent artichokes, the little salty explosions of the capers, and the creamy mouthfeel of the carnaroli rice, all lifted by the lightness of the lemon. Perfect harmony, from any perspective.
DISCLOSURE: The artichokes and capers were free samples provided by The Good Fork as part of their Intensely Italian box, and the rice was a free sample from Riso Gallo as part of their sponsorship of the recent Plate to Page workshop
ARTICHOKE, CAPER & LEMON RISOTTO (serves 2)
180g marinated artichoke hearts, cut into 1/8th wedges
2 Tbsp capers
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 large clove of garlic, crushed
Juice from half a medium lemon
300g of risotto rice (I used carnaroli from Riso Gallo)
60g Parmesan cheese, grated
100ml dry white wine
2 Tbsp olive oil
20g +20g butter
600ml vegetable stock
Lemon zest to garnish
If using salted capers (as opposed to capers in brine) like I did, soak for at least 15 minutes in cold water, drain and rinse before using.
Melt 20g of the butter together with the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until the onion is translucent and soft but do not let it brown. Add the rice and cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly stir so that each grain is well-coated with oil/butter. Add the white wine and keep stirring until the liquid has been absorbed almost completely.
Add the hot stock a ladleful at a time (probably about 150-200 ml per ladle). Keep stirring until each ladleful has been completely absorbed, but do not let the rice dry out and stick to the pot. Once each ladleful is absorbed, add the next until the stock has all been added. The rice should be soft but each grain should retain some bite in the centre, perfectly al dente, which should take about 20 minutes.
5 minutes before the rice is ready, in a separate saucepan gently heat through the artichoke wedges and capers for 3-4 minutes. Stir the artichokes, capers and lemon juice into the risotto. Continue to cook over a low heat, stirring constantly, until heated through and the juice has been absorbed.
Remove from the heat and stir in the grated Parmesan cheese and the remaining 20g of butter. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary – beware of adding salt as the capers, cheese and artichokes are all salted already, but a good grind of pepper does not hurt. Garnish with lemon zest and a little more grated Parmesan and serve immediately.
I am also thrilled to announce that after our super-successful Tuscany Plate to Page workshop last month, we have today opened registrations for Plate to Page Somerset due to be held in the UK in Spring 2012! Have a look at the programme, details about accommodation, and if it looks like something you’d like to attend, register here – but hurry: places are limited to 12. It would be great to see you there!