Friday, 6 April 2012

ARTICHOKES à la POLITA: a Greek Artichoke Stew (Αγκινάρες α λα πολίτα)

Spring is a peak harvesting season for artichokes, therefore, it's during springtime that artichokes are plentiful, better tasting, and can be had for a good price. Preparing them for cooking is a tedious job, but the effort is worth it. 

This lemony stew is a medley of braised artichokes, potatoes, carrots, peas, and onions. 

One can use canned or frozen artichokes for dips and such, but for this braised artichoke dish only the fresh stuff will do. The taste of fresh artichokes is far, far superior to the frozen or jarred varieties. The part used here is just the artichoke heart, and when it finishes cooking it's soft and lusciously flavourful. 

Artichokes are native to the Mediterranean region and were cultivated since the time of the ancient Greeks. This recipe has a very long history. Variations of it were popular as far back as Byzantine times. The name polita means that the dish originated in the city of Constantinople, which was the capital of the Byzantine empire. Greeks referred to Constantinople simply as the polis (the city), because it was the most important city in the empire, therefore, "à la polita," means in the style of the polis, or in the style of Constantinople. 

Nutritionally, artichokes aid digestion and strengthen liver and gallbladder functions. They are rich in protein and vitamin C and are known to lower blood cholesterol levels. Artichokes are good to eat and are good for you!  Here's my recipe for this flavourful vegetable stew starring the artichoke:


3 scallions, sliced

1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
3 medium Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and chopped into quarters (Yukon gold potatoes taste great when they are braised).
3 carrots, peeled and sliced into rounds or, if available, one bunch of baby carrots left whole
1 cup of frozen peas 
10  pearl onions (use the red variety if available)
8 fresh artichoke hearts
1/2 cup dill, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh thyme leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
juice of two lemons 
3 cups water or vegetable broth
olive oil

  • To clean the artichokes: peel all the hard outer leaves until you reach the softer core. Keep peeling the leaves until you reach the choke which is the uneatable fuzzy part of the artichoke that needs to be scooped out. It can be scooped with a spoon or a small knife, but my favourite way to remove the choke, and one that works faster for me, is by using a melon baller.
  • With the use of a paring knife, trim the stem, removing any remnants of the outer leaves. The artichoke heart will start to turn brownish. That's because the chlorophyll present in the hearts begins to oxidize or lose its green colour when exposed to oxygen. Another thing that happens is enzymatic browning (the same thing that happens to bananas). During this process, certain enzymes produce melanin when exposed to oxygen. The melanin turns fruits and vegetables brown. 
  • To prevent oxidation you must place the cleaned artichokes in a water bath with an acid pH: have a bowl of cold water standing by, 10% of which is made up of vinegar or lemon juice. As soon as the hearts are ready, drop them in this water bath and leave them there until they are ready to go into the cooking pot. When you add them to the pot, just pull them out of the water bath, but do not use any of the soaking water for cooking. 
  • Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large cooking pan. 
  • Add the chopped onions and celery and sauté until the onions are soft. 
  • Add the pearl onions and potatoes and sauté for a few more minutes.
  • Add the carrots and mix. Season with salt and pepper.  
  • Add the lemon juice, vegetable stock or water, and 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce the heat. Simmer for about 15 minutes.
  • Add the artichokes, thyme and dill. Simmer in the broth for 30 to 40 minutes or until the vegetables are soft but not mushy. 
  • During the last ten minutes of cooking add the peas and scallions.  
  • Taste and add more salt and pepper if needed. 
  • During cooking, a lot of the liquid will be absorbed or evaporate. Make sure it doesn't totally disappear. If it starts to get low, add more broth or water.  On the other hand, if there is too much liquid leftover, you can thicken it with a little cornstarch.
  • Arrange the vegetables on a serving platter; season with freshly ground black pepper, drizzle olive oil on top, and serve.  

I hope you enjoy this lemony and delicious vegetable recipe made with artichokes.