Tuesday, March 16, 2010


My artichoke plantation has been through several incarnations. First, I imagined the stately, perennial plants on the rough slope above my terrace. I harvested a few, but the plants did not thrive, for the soil was too poor. Next I tried two separate locations in “loamy” garden soil (loamy, in quotes, because in southern Spain,  except in river bottoms, loam does not exist). The ants devastated the plants, tunneling beneath them, turning them into aphid farms. 

Now, in a fourth location, the fledgling artichoke plants appear to thrive. However, I am still weeks away from harvesting the buds—artichokes—so dare not count my chickens before they hatch. Impatient, I bought a dozen at the market. (In southern Spain, they come into season early in March.)

Once artichokes, a cultivated thistle, seemed the most exotic of vegetables, but, for me, they have become familiar and desired. When my kids were little, I would buy artichokes by the crate at the wholesale market and experiment with every possible way to prepare them. Kids, by the way, adore artichokes. I think it’s the entertainment value of plucking off leaves, dipping in sauce, pulling them through the teeth, piling up the debris. Or maybe it was just the mayonnaise—my kids would eat anything served with (homemade) mayonnaise.
 Tips and Chokes

After watching Spanish home cooks prepare artichokes, I’ve thrown out a lot of received culinary wisdom about this vegetable. First and foremost—forget rubbing them with lemon or dropping the trimmed artichokes in acidulated water.  Lemon changes their natural sweetness and turns them an unnatural color. Without lemon, artichokes will darken slightly, but it’s a natural, dark green. The only trick, really, is to have the water boiling or the oil heated and to cook the artichokes immediately.

Another suggestion: trim minimally, but be willing to eat them “hands on.” My favorite everyday way with artichokes has always been to cook them whole in boiling salted water (having cut off the stem and snapped off only a few outer leaves). They are done when a leaf pulls off easily. After draining upside-down, I open up the leaves into a wide rosette (usually one artichoke per person) and use a small spoon or melon baller to scoop out the fuzzy choke. This leaves a nice well to be filled with olive oil, vinaigrette or mayonnaise. You pull off the leaves, one by one, and dip them into the vinaigrette, then pull the leaf through your teeth, extracting the tasty pulp. Discard the fibrous leaf. When you get down to the heart, also called the bottom, use a knife and fork to cut it into bite-sized bits.

Another easy way to prepare artichokes is to cut whole ones into quarters (or, if large, into sixths). Use the tip of a knife to nip out the choke and immediately add the artichokes to the pan. To eat them, pick up the pieces by the leaf tips and bite off the whole fleshy bottom, then discard the tips.
In paella making, quartered artichokes are added to a sofrito before the addition of rice and stock. I used to parboil them, thinking to stabilize the color, but I noticed that Spanish cooks don’t bother. Artichokes add a very special flavor to paella rice. Again, you have to expect to pick up the artichokes with fingers—but then, in home style paella, diners might need to shell the shrimp too.

Should you prefer no-mess, fork-ready artichoke hearts, then, yes, get ready for some trimming. Cut a slice off the artichoke bottom, discarding the stem. Remove about three layers of outer leaves. Use a serrated knife to cut off the top two-thirds of the leaves and discard them. Now you have a round artichoke bottom. With a knife tip, pare around the base, smoothing it out. Scoop out the fuzzy choke inside. You should, in theory, have a fleshy artichoke bottom that is totally edible. Cook it immediately or drop into acidulated water as you prepare the rest of the artichokes.

Alcachofas a la Cordobesa
Artichokes with Ham and Córdoba Wine

This is a favorite dish in the tabernas of Córdoba. The artichokes are first sautéed, then simmered in Córdoba wine, the dry fino of Montilla-Moriles, which is similar to Sherry fino. Supposedly artichokes don’t pair well with wine, but fino, whether from Montilla-Moriles or Jerez, makes a perfect match. Artichokes prepared in this manner make a good starter.

Makes 8 tapas or starters.

Pinch of saffron threads     
4 tablespoons hot water
10 to 12 small artichokes, quartered
¼ cup olive oil
4 cloves garlic, sliced crosswise
2 tablespoons chopped onion
2 ounces chopped serrano ham
½ cup fino (dry) Montilla or Sherry
1/3 cup water
Salt and pepper
Sprig of fresh mint, plus additional chopped mint for garnish

Crush the saffron in a mortar and add the hot water. Allow to steep.

Heat the oil in a cazuela (earthenware casserole) or skillet. Add the artichokes, garlic, onion and ham and sauté 5 minutes. Stir in the saffron water, fino Montilla, water, salt, pepper and sprig of mint. Cover and cook until artichokes are tender, 15 minutes. Add additional water, if needed.

Serve hot or room temperature sprinkled with chopped fresh mint.

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