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Friday, 9 May 2008

Broad beans with artichokes (Αγγιναροκούκια)

The artichokes in the garden are doing a roaring trade; each plant (we use them as a border around our fences) contains at least 5 heads, and there are 15 plants in all, which really begs the question (to you, not to me): how many artichokes would you eat in one season? So far, we've had artichokes raw in a lemon dressing, I've cooked artichoke a la polita a couple of times, we've thrown artichoke in our salad, and there are still 70 artichoke heads in the garden. The plants remind me of my first home in Wellington, where my parents taught me to tear away the leaves from the heart and eat the succulent ends - and then to go and take a look at myself in a mirror. Followers of black gothic fashion will be thrilled to find out that their lips will match the colour of their clothes.

Artichokes (the globe artichoke, that is - nothing whatsoever to do with the Jerusalem artichoke) are a very Mediterranean ingredient, but they are not difficult to adapt into non-Mediterranean recipes. Once they have been cleared of their thorny fur, think of them as a kind of potato or carrot. They soften up nicely once they're cooked, and are especially delicious in a meat roast. The French really know what to do with them when they stuff them with meat.

It's been a while since we last had broad beans in our meals. Apparently broad beans contain some kind of enzyme that some children can't absorb. A test is done to see if Greek-born babies have this enzyme deficiency (the syndrome is called 'favism') by taking a blood swab from the baby's foot soon after it is born. The hospital staff warn you not to let your child eat broad beans until you can ascertain that it isn't allergic to certain food items. Not many children would want to eat broad beans anyway.

We were not lucky enough to find the time to plant broad beans in our garden this year, so I've bought some from the market. Don't they look revolting? The big fat beans are hidden amongst their unattractive foliage; only a connoisseur would give them a second glance. They need to be cleared of their yellow crown, and the black fibre sealing their skin is a little too tough to chew, so you can slice that off and leave the tender green bean exposed. The pod is usually too tough to chew, but if the pod makes a 'snap' sound when you open it to shell it, it is probably tender enough to eat once it's cooked. When cooked, broad beans are another of those smelly vegetables, like cauliflower, cabbage and celery; they smell raw-grassy, a bit like being stuck in a cow paddock on a rainy day. Broad beans are called fava beans in the West, but this word is reserved in Greece for the yellow split pea dip; the Egyptians make their version of fava from broad beans - the famous ful madames - using a similar technique as the Greeks do. Broad beans are also used in their dried form; they are especially popular soaked in water and eaten during fasting periods (skin removed), or turned into a soupy stew like fasolada. Their dense flavour goes well with meat, which is what the French usually combine with their 'feves'.

Broad beans can be eaten raw in salads (crown and black fibre removed), or they can be boiled and added to horta, especially vlita and stifno, which are now available seasonally. On this note, we're a little biased: our garden, whose soil we prepared for planting, is literally covered in vlita and stifno plantlets, which have sprouted on their own, from seed left in the soil since last year's crop. The horta currently being sold at the market have undoubtedly been sprayed heavily with pesticides, which is why we don't buy them. Not everyone has this choice. Vlita is loosely translated as 'amaranth' in English, while stifno has the morbid name of 'deadly nightshade', known as a poisonous plant in the West, just like the wild Tamus communis asparagus, both of which Cretans eat and still haven't died out.

Broad beans are definitely an acquired taste, as are artichokes, so this dish will undoubtedly appear to contain the strangest combination of unusual vegetables to the more sensitised among us. But it remains a spring favorite nonetheless in Crete as well as other parts of Greece, as my various cookbooks tell me. Broad beans can be substituted for carrots in the famous artichokes a la polita, and they can also be cooked in tomato sauce. Our preference is to cook them in a lemon-flour sauce.

You need:
1/4 cup olive oil
6-7 artichoke hearts (only fresh artichoke works here), cut into small chunks
750g broad beans (shell them from a kilo of pods; keep the pods only if they were tender enough to snap open when shelling), black fibre removed
5 spring onions
a small bunch of fennel, chopped small
salt and pepper
the juice of 2 lemons
a tablespoon of flour
Heat the oil in a large pot and add the onions, artichokes, beans, and fennel. Stir them about to wilt in the hot oil and turn down the heat. Add just enough water to cover them, season the dish and place the lid on the pot. Let the vegetables cook until they are tender - this will need at least one hour on a very low heat. Mix the flour into the lemon and pour it into the pot. Let the covered pot continue to cook on a low heat until the sauce blends with the vegetables, and everything is tender enough to eat. The sauce will also have thickened slightly into a gooey green soup. Serve with the usual Greek accompaniment: sourdough bread and feta cheese.

This is my entry to the Beautiful Vegetables 2008 event, hosted by eat the right stuff.

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MORE UNUSUAL VEGETABLES:
Artichokes a la polita
Cretan wild asparagus
Okra (lady's fingers)
Zucchini flowers
Swiss chard (silverbeet)
Mustard greens
Summer horta
Winter horta
Fennel pies
Sorrel (dock)