Spring is here and I couldn’t wait for it for too long. I was running out of patience, I wanted to be outside – for hours, wearing sneakers and a jacket. To bike, to see the gentle, green buds coming from the ground and to feel the wind messing up my hair while carrying the sweet fragrance of the magnolia trees. To take a deep breath, to close my eyes and turn my face toward the sun and get all the warm kisses that I missed so much.
Everyone is outside – squirrels, rabbits (yes, they too – I live in Minnesota, remember), birds, people, dogs – running, jumping, flying – soaking up life. This is the time when I start thinking of my next adventure, of all the places I want to see, of the new town I want to move to, of the new challenges to face. I am excited. I am ready.
My mom used to say that I like to make life challenging. And I always had mixed feelings about that – she made it sound as it was a vice while inside I felt it was a virtue. After all, most of my strength came from running toward all the things in life that looked like huge, rocky mountain that is impossible to climb. And don’t we all have those mountains?! Some are big, some are small, some we face daily and some we climb our entire lives.
This week my huge rocky mountain came in the shape of fresh spring artichokes. All 15 of them eaten by the end of this adventure. I never cooked fresh artichokes before. There were no artichokes in Bulgaria when I was growing up. So I should be worried after all, right – I am dealing with something unfamiliar. As with everything new to us in life, the best thing to do is to simply trust life and...Jump! (And take my advice, my friends the less harsh critiques in the beginning of tthe journey the better.) So here I was with a bag of beautiful spring buds and no clue how to make the best of them. If you are thinking that I failed the first time (and the second time, and the third time, and the fourth time), you are right – a total disaster. And as I stood up in my kitchen late on those nights eating plates of either tasteless, or overcooked, or over marinated (in tons of garlic, salt and white anchovies) artichokes, the most obvious solution came to me – I needed some balance. So I set down and I thought of all the things that actually worked after every disastrous attempts, and I realized that what worked was when the artichokes were gently cooked and flavorful, with a balance of salt, sweetness and brightness, when their texture was soft (but not mushy) and when they had some crunch. Learning that fresh artichokes are at their best when warm and that they soak whatever they are in, I decided to layer flavors in 3 stages to create a subtle complexity and gentle build-up. If you are sweating already by reading this, you shouldn’t. This recipe is no more complicated than making an omelette. It really is. And just as I did, after you cook one from scratch, you will feel really good about yourself. And if you mess up and it doesn’t taste good, try it a second time, and a third time and a fourth. Try a different recipe, until you get there – to the top of the huge, rocky mountain. You will feel great, I promise!
If you haven’t cooked fresh artichokes I have some freshness tips for you below. And if you can’t find artichokes where you live, what are some of your all-time favorite spring recipes?
• Fresh artichokes can be found all year round but they are at their best between March and May.
• An artichoke is fresh when it is heavy for it size and the outer leaves are green/purple and firm. To test, squeeze the artichoke and listen for the squeaky sound. The stem should be firm and green when the tip is trimmed.
• Artichoke leaves have small spikes at each end. Be careful when handling. Trim any remaining spikes before cooking using kitchen scissors.
• Don’t attempt to eat the choke, it has its name for a reason!
• Artichokes oxidize really quickly, cut them when ready to use. Once cut, place artichokes immediately cut side down in a bowl of lemon water.
• Store fresh artichokes in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for about 3 days.
Artichokes with Lemon an Herbs
Serves 4 (side dish, appetizer, lunch)
• 2 large lemons
• 4 medium size artichokes
• 1/2 cup white wine
• 4 garlic cloves, peeled
• 1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
• 1 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
• 3 tbsp olive oil
• 1 tbsp raw walnuts, finely chopped
Juice the first lemon and zest 1/2 of it. Place the zest in a bowl, cover and set aside. Pour the juice in a large pot with 1/2 cup of water and the wine. Working with 1 artichoke at a time, trim the dark end of the stem and peel 3-4 layers of the outer tough leaves. Trim about 1 inch from the top and peel the fibrous green stem and leaf ends using a vegetable peeler. Halve the artichoke lengthwise and scoop the choke with a spoon. Place each cleaned half cut side down in the pot with the lemon/wine mixture.
Add 3 of the garlic cloves and 1/2 tsp of salt to the pot and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to low and simmer for 30-40 minutes turning artichokes half-way through. The artichokes are done when a knife tip is inserted to the heart and the flesh is as soft as a cooked potato.
Meanwhile, make the remaining garlic clove into a paste and place in the bowl with the lemon zest. Add parsley, dill, the juice of the remaining lemon, 2 tbls olive oil and 1/4 tsp of salt. Mix well and set aside.
Place the artichokes on a large plate and spoon about 1 tsp of the marinade on each one, making sure that some of the marinade gets in between the leaves. Let them cool for 10 min.
Heat the remaining 1 tbsp of olive oil in a heavy bottom or cast iron skillet. Add the artichoke halves cut side down and lower heat to a medium-high. Cook until golden brown, for about 1 minute, turn the artichokes and cook for additional 30 seconds. Transfer the artichokes to a large plate. Add the walnuts to the marinade, mix well and spoon about half of the mixture over the artichokes.
Serve while still warm with a side of the remaining marinade.
Pour glasses of some vibrant white wine and eat!
Eating Tip (if you are an artichoke novice!):
Start eating the artichoke from the center where the leaves are soft. When close to the outer leaves (don’t be afraid and use your hands) eat only the lower, soft part of the leaf by scraping it (with your front teeth). The heart and the stem are the best parts, cut them up and enjoy!