artichoke; the Elizabeth of vegetables
They have crowns instead of heads, but they pretend to be deeply modest. They are always seen in the fields resting quietly on their single leg, neglecting humans and looking at the sky into oblivion; but, they are dying for attention. Observing them from afar, someone may think that they stand side by side, almost touching each other; getting closer though, a strictly applied distance seperating them will be noticed. They seem really introverted; well, I've never met before such a narcissistic creature as artichoke.
According to ancient manuscript sources (371-287 B.C) artichoke is described as a cactus species cultivated in Sicily. Romans used to eat not only the heart, but also the hard leaves that had been marinated in salty water first; as for the Greeks, they used to consume different kinds of artichokes. However, the "domesticated" artichoke species of modern times, was cultivated and popularized by the Arabs of Andalusia. Artichoke is a vegetable that can be eaten in all her grown stages*; as a baby during winter, a teen in the spring and a woman in the early summer. And there is almost nothing that cannot do about our body.
Due to their quiet and well behaved appearance, I never found the courage to built strong bonds with them; but their taste always made me happy. The only thing that used to bother me was the person from whom we were getting them. Every summer my aunts were excited to treat us vacation in a small village close to Nafplio, Iria; and that unpleasant 'person' was the owner of the rooms and the artichoke fields. She loved to make gossip about everyone and everything, more than this, she used to make bleak jokes about peoples' weight and bodyshape. Whenever she saw me, she welcomed me to her rental flats with the same sentence for at least 13 years "Stavriani, is it me or you gained weight this year? I heard that you eat all your food, hahahaha..." It is one of the most common jokes you can hear repeatidly in Greece, and will eternaly exist. As for me, I would just say "pfffff" and shrug my shoulders. Sometimes, vacation at Iria had been very stressful, as the possibility of meeting her by chance could turn into her shouting something about my hips. What kind or response could I possibly give to such a discriminative teasing? After all, one of the first things that we are taught as children is to respect older people; but respect is a feeling, not a privilage of any kind of status; can you imagine that because of her, the intimacy between me and artichoke is still in progress?
Artichoke has been an inspiration for many delicate dishes and she definitely belongs to the category of the V.I.P vegetables; she is special for the Greek palate -plainly served, boiled with a light sauce of lemon and virgin olive oil, or more official, slowly cooked lamb haunch with a rousing sauce of dill, spring onions and lemon; and they are only two ways, among hundreds, to enjoy artichoke's waltz while slipping in your mouth.
Since lamb is also at its peak of flavour, I thought how badly I've missed a well cooked lamb rump with artichokes. The ingredients that you will need are: a lamp leg about two kilos cut in medium pieces with the bone, 8 whole artichokes with their stems if it's possible, one chopped onion, a bunch of small diced dill and a bunch of big diced spring onions; for the sauce that will be added at the end, the juice of two rich lemons and two eggs, orange zest and diced dill for the garnish.
Heat a comfortable pot, add some olive oil and saute the meat. After 7-8 minutes add the onion and a little bit later the spring onions. Salt and black pepper; don't show mercy on the last. As soon as the onions give in to the heat, fill the pot with water until the meat is almost covered, add a few big drops of olive oil, cover the pot and cook at a low heat for one hour. When the meat gets softer, add the artichokes and cook at the same heat for 30 minutes. Open the pot, remove from the heat and get ready for the sauce, the most heartbeating part of the dish! In a bowl whisk the egg white in a calm way. Do the same thing for the yellow part as well and then unite and continue whisking. It is very important at this level to keep sending kisses to your mixture; it is a tip -and an unexplained mystery at the same time- that helps the sauce to bodybuild. Add the lemon juice slowly and don't stop whisking; finally, add stoically 2-3 ladles of the pot stock to the lemon-egg mixture and watch the sauce becoming a foamy explosion, just like the one that is created when a wave crashes on the rocks. Add in the pot the diced dill and stir extremely gently. Apply the sauce to the pot, cover it, and move it in circles for 4-5 seconds, so the lemon reaches every inch of the stock. Serve a piece of lamb and two artichokes and feed it with the foamy sauce. Sprinkle some diced dill and orange zest.
Although we did everything to make her smile, artichoke's attidude is still powerfull and distant...Even the lamb is reluctant to compete her. As a queen that she is, she appears in public only when defined by the protocol; and after serving her duties, she vails hersef again. She is there for her people, often her name is mentioned, but nobody has really the chance to be close to her; and this is how an atrichoke rules a dish.
*Marianna Kavroulaki, "The language of taste" (Gourmand Award 2012)
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