Artichokes are a winter vegetable of the Mediterranean diet with a reputation for being healthy. However, here we are more interested in their culinary virtues, in their slight-bitter nutty-like flavor that makes them delicious and special.
Their physical appearance is also special, and at first, artichokes may puzzle inexperienced non-Mediterranean home cooks.
To tell you the truth, I remember once feeling put off by the artichokes I saw in a Ghent food store. They looked completely inedible to me. They were huge and had a brownish-green color, the leaves were all open and hollow to the touch, and as dry as if they had been exposed to the desert sun for weeks. Now you know how an artichoke shouldn’t be when you buy it.
You could hardly call those Belgian artichokes flowers. Indeed, the flowers are what we eat. They are the edible part of the artichoke plant, or more accurately, the unopened flower head of this enigmatic thistle plant.
Let’s clarify things. When buying artichokes, choose compact and tightly packed ones. The leaves should be closed, or they are too old and useless for cooking any decent Mediterranean dish based on artichokes. A little darkening in the outer leaves is no big deal, but accept only a little. Artichokes shouldn’t feel too light in your hands either; this is another sign that they were harvested too long ago.
Artichokes in the Mediterranean landscape
Artichokes are native to the Mediterranean basin, and every spring they shoot up their deep blue and purple colors in the Mediterranean fields. Together with wild asparagus and mushrooms, green and purple artichokes are used in a variety of dishes that connect us to a Mediterranean cuisine understood as the landscape in a pan, a Catalan cuisine motto and the motto of my web site, as my readers know.
In my homeland of Mediterranean Catalonia, we are very fond of those three plant foods, and have many traditional dishes that use them. I don’t know about wild mushrooms, but artichokes and asparagus are considered an aphrodisiac, which makes artichokes even more appealing.
Now you can find acceptable artichokes all winter, but it is in the spring when they are at their best. In the northern part of the Mediterranean, artichokes are harvested from February to March. In the southern Mediterranean, the harvest lasts longer, beginning in December or even November.
Some meal ideas with artichokes
Simply boiling them in water with a pinch of salt and a dash of vinegar is the quickest and easiest method. In this case, do not use an aluminum or iron pot, because they turn an ugly dark color.
You can saute them, stuff them with rice or shrimps, grill them, and roast them in the oven. For those who love eating raw vegetables, the heart leaves certain varieties of small purple artichokes can be eaten raw in a salad.
One recipe I find particularly delicious is rice with artichokes. Their slight bitter flavor and the sweetness of the rice make for a surprising contrast. An artichoke omelet is another great culinary idea, and in some coastal and champagne producing regions south of Barcelona, it often accompanies a superb traditional salad dish called xato.
Combined with chicken or rabbit, artichokes are also extraordinary. If you like to blacken the rice of your paella, add some artichokes and fava beans to it. But grilling artichokes in the open air is unsurpassable in its simplicity. It’s an open air celebration, another excuse to “go grilling” with your friends, as they say in the Catalan region surrounding the Ebre (Ebro) River, about 125 miles (200 km) south of Barcelona.
Season the whole artichokes generously with extra virgin olive oil and some salt, and put them on the grill. Traditionally, while you are busy eating the barbecued meat, the artichokes are grilling. Once they are done, pull off the outer burned leaves, and eat the tender ones and the delicious heart, where the olive oil has concentrated.
Here’s another simple dish with artichokes suitable for preparing outdoors: Do your best to get small heirloom purple artichokes, pull off a few outer leaves, cut the artichokes in half lengthwise, drizzle some extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle some salt, and grill them. Toast two slices of country-style bread, and put the grilled artichokes in between. You will not believe how delicious it is until you try it.
The drawback of artichokes
Sommeliers find artichokes very frustrating. The taste of artichokes is so persistent, and it lasts for so long in the mouth that they don’t find any wine that is right for them.
I admit that whenever I eat grilled artichokes I commit a sin. I pair them with a strong red wine like Priorat or an unpretentious house red wine, although I know that it breaks the laws of wine connoisseurs. But that’s what people did before sommeliers had their say, so… no drawbacks with artichokes after all.