03 May 2007
The first time I saw an artichoke growing in its natural form was driving through the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon. It had been a confusing day: touring a vineyard and a wine tasting that could have been in France, an annoying Hezbollah checkpoint, passing the odd Roman ruin in the desert. Driving through the semi-arid landscape, there was a whole field of large spiky-leaved plants with tall stalks, “artichokey” said my seat-partner as I looked wide-eyed at the giant thistle-like plants. It is thought the Arabs were the first to cultivate the artichoke while trying to copy Italian cardoons (though Italians, I am sure, would claim primacy). Minutes later, our bus made a crashing turn off the highway and barreled down a dirt road, stirring up dust in a landscape of fields and farms and which was alarmingly devoid of any buildings as far as the eye could see. That is, until we pulled up to a long low restaurant. Situated amongst the artichoke fields, it’s interior revealed bubbling fountains and a packed house of patrons at 3 in the afternoon. Like any good adventurous traveler, I knew I was in for a delicious and lengthy meal.
Previously, my acquaintance with artichokes had been every spring, when my mother would buy artichokes and steam them and we would peel the leaves and dip them in a big bowl of clarified butter, the tooth-torn leaves piling up on our plates as we ate our way towards the meaty heart. Now, half-way around the world, along with the plates of hummus and tabboule, came big steaming platters of artichokes with nutty butter for dipping: the same preparation, only with the odor of nargileh swirling and the strains of Amr Diab overhead. That afternoon there were also artichoke-bottoms, deftly scooped out and filled with a meat and pine nut stuffing, then covered in tomatoes and béchamel sauce and baked, but it was those leaves I savored the most.
A friend of mine has long-praised a shaved artichoke salad, and this season I decided to give it a go. Just like seeing those artichokes in the field, this salad was a whole new perspective on the vegetable. Like a high school reunion where the dorky kid with the braces and thick glasses returns tall, blonde and enviously successful, so my artichoke transformed into elegant crunchy slivers layered with sharp cheese.
There’s no getting around the fact that trimming the artichokes is a major pain, something to be done only when the season inspires or when enough time has passed that you’ve forgotten the curses you uttered the last time you did it. My own messy process looked much like a a child in a chicken coop, knives and feathers flying. However, you really shouldn’t let that dissuade you, because this salad is truly delicious. It has me wishing (once again) that American markets sold pre-prepped artichokes. I happened to have an asian pear laying around, and a few sweet slices of it paired wonderfully well with the salad, but I imagine some slivers of peppery fennel would also work well. Either way, I hope you are enjoying springs bounty in artichokes and otherwise.
Shaved Artichoke Salad
This flavorful crunchy salad is worth the annoyance of prepping the artichokes. Serves 2-3.
4 oz parmiggiano-reggiano cheese
1 asian pear (optional)
3 tbl lemon juice
3 tbl olive oil
1 tsp mustard
2 tbl finely chopped parsley
1. Fill a shallow bowl with water and add 1 tablespoon of lemon juice.
2. Pull off the external leaves of the artichoke and cut off most off the top. Pull away the leaves and use the knife to pare away everything but the meaty bottom of the artichoke, scooping out and discarding the fuzzy choke. Place the artichoke bottom in the acidulated water to prevent browning and repeat with remaining artichokes.
3. Using a mandoline or a sturdy vegetable peeler, shave the artichoke bottoms over the bowl, letting the shavings drop into the acidulated water.
2. In a small bowl, whisk together the remaining 2 tablespoons lemon juice, olive oil, mustard, and salt. Drain the artichoke slivers and toss with the dressing to coat. Thinly slice some of the asian pear (I usually only use about half), and add to the bowl with the chopped parsley, toss everything to combine.
3. Place half the artichoke mixture on a serving platter. Shave some of the cheese over the artichokes to cover in a thin layer. Cover with the remaining artichoke mixture, then shave more cheese over top. Serve immediately.