By the middle of February I am always eager to see those first glimmers of spring; the little fronds of green showing through the soil, the sudden surprise of snowdrops in flower and the sunny burst of daffodils in the shops.
I know it’s probably a little early in the year, but coming across the first small, purple artichokes always gives me the hope that the dark days of winter are on the wane. In this modern world, where everything is available anywhere and at any time, there is still an undoubtable charm in enjoying produce when it is in season. Mediterranean artichokes are at their best from February through to April so this opportunity could not be missed.
The artichoke is a rather curious vegetable; it is, in fact, a thistle and it must have been a very imaginative (or maybe desperate) person who first had the idea of eating one! Centuries of cultivation has meant that artichokes have lost many of its inherent thistle characteristics, however there are still those little residual spikes at the tips of the leaves to remind us of its true origin.
So, to the recipe. This is a delightful dish of artichokes and peas braised in a delicate tomato sauce. It is one of the classic ‘laderá’,dishes – or oil based dishes.
‘Ladera’ recipes always involve vegetables as the main ingredient and the next player is a generous amount of good quality olive oil. They are popular throughout the year but truly come in to their own during Lent, when quite a few Greeks still abstain from eating meat. Here the magical combination of artichokes, peas and dill produces a stunning, subtle flavour – redolent of spring and the promise of warmer days to come. There is a point in the Greek spring when you have both artichokes and peas at their best – fortunately, frozen petits pois are a more than satisfactory substitute. The dish can also be made with broad beans instead of the peas.
Preparing artichokes is a little fiddly – the important thing to remember is that, once cut into, they go brown really quickly. So the trick is to have some lemon halves to hand and also a bowl of water, laced with lemon juice. Once you have exposed any of the inner parts of the artichoke, rub it with lemon juice and then pop the prepared artichokes in the bowl of lemon-water until you are ready to cook them.
With these small, purple artichokes, the best thing is to pull off the outer leaves until you expose the pale inner leaves. Next, slice across the top of each artichoke, just to take off those spiky tips and rub over with lemon juice.
Artichokes have, at their core, a fibrous ‘choke’ that needs to be removed. In the big globe ones the ‘choke’ is quite tough, in the smaller varieties, the ‘choke’ is more like silky tufts. Cut the small artichokes in half lengthwise, exposing the ‘choke’ and scoop it out.
Remember to keep the prepared artichokes in the lemon-water until you are ready to cook them.
Artichokes With Peas – Angináres mé Araká
4 or 5 small artichokes
1 medium onion, finely chopped
300 -400 gm fresh or frozen peas
250 ml tomato juice – or 1 tab tomato purée diluted in 250 ml water
150 ml olive oil
A small bunch of fresh dill, finely chopped
Salt and pepper
Put half the oil in a casserole pan and heat it up.
Add the chopped onion and cook until it has softened but not caramelised.
Add the tomato juice (or diluted purée) and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Now remove the artichokes from the bowl of lemon water and give them a quick rinse. Now add them to the tomato sauce.
Cook for about 20 minutes on a moderate heat until they are almost cooked.
Now add the frozen peas and the chopped dill. Cook for a further 10 minutes or so, until the peas are cooked. If you are using fresh peas, they will need to be added to the pan earlier (maybe after the artichokes have been cooking for 10-15 minutes).
Check the seasoning and serve with crusty bread.