Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Artichokes in a lemon sauce (Αγκινάρες α λα πολίτα)

Margaret from Bulgaria has been living in Greece for five years now. She decided to leave her native land in search of work elsewhere, as work was (and still is) hard to find in the former communist nation, now one of the latest additions to the European Union. Life was good during the communist regime, she reports; the problems came when it fell. Communism was a kind of insurance against unemployment, illness and famine - everyone had jobs to go to no matter how mundane, doctors attended to all the sick regardless of status, and food was distributed fairly. But when that all ended, goods started disappearing from the shelves in the stores. She remembers not being able to get hold coffee and sugar for a long time. Now she's never without a cup of coffee in her hands; she clutches the mug as if it's one of her most precious possessions, the outcome of the do-without syndrome in her past.

Margaret is my mother-in-law's live-in 24/7 carer. She cooks for her, helps her to eat, changes her clothes, and generally looks after her. On Sundays, she goes to stay with her son who is also working in Hania. When I first met her, I let her know that she could cook separate meals for herself if she didn't like the bland diet my mother-in-law preferred. "Oh no", she said, "I must be an extremely picky eater if I won't have what she's having." After the first three days of orzo rice for lunch and dinner, she asked me if I could just treat her as my third child, because that orzo rice stuff was now giving her diarrhoea. She preferred not to cook meals for herself; "waste of time and money", she said, as if remembering the harder times in her native country. Greeks have a lot to learn about economising from the new immigrants to the country.

Margaret opened up a new avenue for my cooking ventures. She loves vegetable dishes cooked in white sauces, something my very Cretan husband is not at all fond of - it's got to be tomato cerise red for him. She also likes artichokes, which my husband only eats raw in salads, cleared of furry thistles, cut into segments and dipped in lemon. When the artichoke plant is fully mature, it makes an attractive centrepiece in a vase as a flower. This is how my Kiwi friends viewed the artichoke, with its green plumage and purple fur (at which point the artichoke is not edible, so you will never be able to appreciate its beauty at our house, as they are all eaten). They couldn't imagine any other use for it. How human beings conceived the idea that the artichoke, with its thistled flowers, furry centre and thorny leaves, could possibly be an edible plant, I can only imagine - probably by watching animals eat it, or maybe during a famine. Once you try artichoke - either cooked or raw - you will be persuaded into growing it as a hedgerow round your house. Thanks to Margaret, I have the chance to enjoy my favorite Greek vegetable medley: artichokes in a lemon sauce (αγκινάρες α λα πολίτα; αγκινάρα = artichoke in the singular).

This dish has its origins in Constantinople, during the time when people referred to it as the 'Poli', meaning the City, the one and only important city in Byzantine times, inhabited by many people of Greek origin (among other nationalities). It is the most well known dish of the former Greek community whose numbers began to dwindle after the siege of Smyrna in 1922. The culinary flair of the ex-patriates left a legacy that lives on in Greece, and includes other famous dishes like soutzoukakia, with its spicy taste, colourful appearance and piquant flavor. This dish accentuates the arrival of spring with its vibrant colours. It is also often used in advertising campaigns promoting artichokes.

Although most people know what an artichoke looks like, I bet they don't know how to clean one. Where on earth is the edible part of the artichoke hiding? Cleaning artichokes is about as much fun as cleaning aubergines. The thorns prick you, your fingers turn black, and there is much waste. Our garden is bordered by artichokes, but they are not in season yet (they will be ready for picking at the end of March), so I've used frozen artichoke hearts, which are always tender and never stringy and fibrous. Artichokes are not cheap; fresh ones cost almost 1 euro each in the beginning of the season (when they are at their most tender), whereas a 400g packet of frozen artichoke hearts costs 6 euro for 7 large artichoke hearts cleared of all debris. I made a salad out of the fresh ones (to go with the packaged lasagne for my pickier eaters) and used the frozen ones in the stew. To make the dish more substantial, some humble (and cheap) peas are added. They suit the dish well in terms of colours and taste.

Some web pages show the cleaning process for artichokes step-by-step. I've included my own version here. Once the 'heart' is exposed, it must be dipped into lemon juice to stop the artichokes form browning, so you need to have a bowl of squeezed lemon juice handy before you start cleaning them. This is very important to maintain an attractive appearance, but the browning does not detract from their taste. The leaves are pulled away, and any other tough or purple-coloured parts are removed from the crop. If the leaves are tender (they will feel soft and have an open yellow-green colour), they are edible. The fur is cut away (and then scraped) with a knife. I always cut the hearts in half to scrape away the furry centre more easily. Care must be taken not to cut into the heart and waste any precious flesh! And if your fingers do become grubby, don't worry - make sure you have the squeezed lemon juice ready at hand to dip the artichokes in, and then rub your fingers and hands with squeezed lemon halves. Your hands will never have looked cleaner, and your skin shinier!

As you expose the artichoke heart, dip it into the lemon juice. When you have cleaned it completely, leave it in the lemon juice until you are ready to use it raw in a salad or cooked in a stew. Artichoke (like eggplant) flesh browns very fast. And once you've done all that, you will probably understand better why artichokes are not cheap...

This dish uses artichokes and roughly chopped vegetables that keep their shape when cooked. I added peas to the basic recipe; Nancy added chunks of celery to hers. I added leeks.
ou need:
8 artichoke hearts, cut into segments (frozen or fresh; don't even think of using tinned ones)
1 cup of olive oil
4 spring onions, sliced (ordinary onions can be used; a mixture is even better - I added some leftover leeks to use them up, but that is a deviation from the traditional recipe)
5 carrots, sliced into rounds
1/2 kilo potatoes, roughly chopped (preferably baby potatoes that can be cooked whole)
200g peas
a bunch of fresh dill, finely chopped (very commonly found in Greece)
juice from 2-3 lemons
salt and pepper to taste

Sauté the (spring) onions in a saucepan with the oil. Add the carrots and mix till they are coated in oil. Then add the artichokes, potatoes, dill, lemon juice, salt, pepper and enough water to cover them. Allow the vegetables to cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour before adding the peas, which don't need a long cooking time if they are frozen. It's that easy. The sauce can be thickened with a tablespoon of flour, but I prefer my sauces transparent. In any case, the starch from the potato thickens it nicely enough. This meal is so filling, that you only need a glass of wine (and maybe that ubiquitous feta cheese and sourdough bread) to accompany it. Meat will just spoil the taste of the artichokes. This meal can also be cooked in an egg-and-lemon (avgolemono) sauce, instead of just lemon (or flour).

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