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Artichokes and the Mediterranean Diet

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Artichokes are a winter vegetable of the Mediterranean diet with a reputation for being healthy. Here, however, we are more interested in their culinary qualities, their slightly bitter, nutty flavor that makes them delicious and special.

Their outward appearance is also something special, and artichokes can initially confuse inexperienced, non-Mediterranean home cooking.

To tell the truth, I remember once being put off by the artichokes I saw in a Ghent grocery store. They looked completely inedible to me. They were huge and brownish green in color, the leaves were all open and hollow to the touch and as dry as if they had been exposed to the desert sun for weeks. Now you know what an artichoke should not be like when you buy it.

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You could hardly call these Belgian artichokes flowers. In fact, flowers are what we eat. They are the edible part of the artichoke plant, or more specifically, the unopened flower head of this enigmatic thistle plant.

Let’s clear things up. When buying artichokes, choose compact and densely packed ones. The leaves should be closed, or they’re too old and unusable to make a decent artichoke-based Mediterranean dish. A little darkening in the outer leaves isn’t a big deal, but just accept a little. Artichokes shouldn’t feel too light in your hands, either; this is another sign that they were harvested too long ago.

Artichokes in the Mediterranean landscape

Artichokes are native to the Mediterranean region and shoot out their deep blue and purple colors in the fields of the Mediterranean every spring. Along with wild asparagus and mushrooms, green and purple artichokes are used in a variety of dishes that connect us to a Mediterranean cuisine understood as a landscape in a pan, a motto of Catalan cuisine and the motto of my website, as my readers know .

In my homeland, Mediterranean Catalonia, we love these three plant foods very much and have many traditional dishes that use them. I don’t know about wild mushrooms, but artichokes and asparagus are considered aphrodisiacs, which makes artichokes even more appealing.

Now you can find acceptable artichokes all winter, but they’re at their best in spring. In the northern Mediterranean, artichokes are harvested from February to March. In the southern Mediterranean, the harvest lasts longer, beginning in December or even November.

Some meal ideas with artichokes

Simply boiling in water with a pinch of salt and a dash of vinegar is the quickest and easiest method. In this case, do not use an aluminum or iron pot, as they will turn an ugly dark color.

You can sear them, stuff them with rice or shrimp, grill them, and roast them in the oven. For those who enjoy eating raw vegetables, the heart leaves of certain varieties of small purple artichokes can be eaten raw in a salad.

One recipe that I find particularly delicious is rice with artichokes. Their slightly bitter taste and the sweetness of the rice create a surprising contrast. An artichoke omelet is another great culinary idea, and in some coastal and Champagne regions south of Barcelona it often accompanies an excellent traditional salad dish called xato.

Artichokes are also exceptional in combination with chicken or rabbit. If you like to blacken the rice of your paella, add some artichokes and broad beans. But grilling artichokes in the open air is unsurpassable in its simplicity. It’s an open-air celebration, another excuse to “go barbecue” with your friends, as they say in the Catalan region around the Ebre (Ebro) river, some 200km south of Barcelona.

Generously season the whole artichokes with extra virgin olive oil and a little salt and place on the grill. Traditionally, the artichokes grill while you’re busy eating the grilled meat. When they are done, peel off the burnt outer leaves and eat the tender ones and the delicious heart in which the olive oil has concentrated.

Here’s another easy artichoke dish that’s great for cooking outdoors: do your best to get small old purple artichokes, peel off a few outer leaves, cut the artichokes in half lengthwise, drizzle with some extra virgin olive oil, sprinkle with some salt and grill them. Toast two slices of country bread and sandwich the grilled artichokes in between. You won’t believe how delicious it is until you try it.

The downside of artichokes

Sommeliers find artichokes very frustrating. The taste of artichokes is so persistent and lingers in the mouth for so long that they cannot find a suitable wine.

I admit, if I eat grilled artichokes, I commit a sin. I pair them with a strong red like Priorat or an unpretentious house red, although I know it breaks the laws of wine connoisseurs. But that’s what people were doing before the sommeliers were in charge, so… no cons with artichokes.

Thanks to Nuria Roig

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