Artichokes are like South Africans. They’re hardy and tough and they love the sun. The thick outer skin may be beautiful to look at, but it’s tough to get under. However, once you peel back the layers, you’ll find a tender heart at its core. Indeed. South Africans are artichokes… and as it turns out, we’re in season right now. 

Spring is the perfect time to learn how to process these tough buggers and it can be a labour, warns Babel Executive Chef and artichoke-man Schalk Vlok. The result, however, is worth the effort.

The trick is to make a day of it and prepare your entire artichoke harvest in one go. You have to do a lot of work to get to the core. So, the more artichoke heart nuggets you can mine in one go, the better. Always keep in mind the end goal, however, Schalk says. You’ll be able to enjoy tender, delicious artichokes right throughout the year.

Be prepared

Firstly, you’ll need a bowl of ice water spiked with loads of lemon juice. “The inside of the artichoke oxidises when kept out in the open, so you need to work fast to peel back the hard outer leaves,” Schalk says.

“Once the heart is revealed, you need to scoop out the furry section inside the heart with a spoon, before chopping off the dry ends of the inside bud. This leaves a fully exposed flowerlike bud, but the stem section will still need to be prepped. To do so, use a turning knife and pull back the tougher rind of the stem in a backwards action. Start from the end of the stalk, and peel back the outer layer towards the bottom end of the bud.

“Once you have the cleaned hearts, place them back in the acidic water to keep them from turning brown or speckled.” 

Once cleaned and prepped, the world is your artichoke. You can now cook and preserve your artichoke hearts in a number of ways. 

Artichoke Hearts Marinated in Olive Oil & Spring Herbs

◗ Blanche the hearts with salt, white wine vinegar and water. Boil them until al dente and then transfer them to an ice bath.
◗ Before bottling, remove as much water as possible and pack tightly into a sealable jar, together with bay leaves and peppercorns. Fill the jar with olive oil, covering the artichokes until one centimetre from the edge. Be sure to eliminate air bubbles by pressing the content with a teaspoon and sterilize your jars beforehand to prevent any bacterial activity, that may ruin your hard work.
◗ Once sealed, you can enjoy your preserved artichokes all year round in your favourite salads and pasta, or on pizza and mezze platters.

Whole Fire-Roasted Artichokes

◗ You can take the easier route and prepare your artichokes whole. Be advised, however, that they need a lot of cooking time and you’ll have to work for each tasty morsel of artichoke.
◗ Before cooking, allow the artichokes to soak in lemon water so all dirt and grit are removed.
◗ Then, you can simply roast the artichokes on coals from a wood fire until tender.
◗ To eat, allow the roasted artichoke to cool down before tearing off the leaves one-by-one. Draw your teeth over each leaf to scrape off the tender bit at the root of the leaf. 
◗ This method of cooking essentially steams the artichoke heart inside the leaves, which are then used as little spoons or ‘scoops’ to dig out the steamed heart. 
◗ Serve with melted, salted butter for dipping the leaves into.

Traditional Artichokes à la Barigoule aka Braised Artichokes with Wine

◗ Artichokes à la barigoule is one of the most famous springtime vegetable dishes, originally from France. It’s a light spring casserole with a clean yet comforting flavour, the result of poaching and braising artichokes hearts alongside other vegetables in white wine with olive oil until soft and tender.
◗ Use your cleaned and prepped artichoke hearts and place them in a casserole with other root veg such as onion, garlic and carrots, copious amounts of good white wine, vegetable stock and olive oil. Add fragrant seasonal herbs like bay leaf and flat-leaf parsley and braise until tender.
◗ Add a naughty knob of butter just before serving and enjoy with fresh bread and wine – the perfect spring dinner.

TOP TIP: The tough outer leaves of artichokes aren’t good for eating once removed from the hearts. They make great fire-starters, however, when dried.