Zambolis apartments

Zambolis apartments
For your holidays in Chania

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Artichokes in a lemon sauce (Αγκινάρες α λα πολίτα)

Margaret from Bulgaria has been living in Greece for five years now. She decided to leave her native land in search of work elsewhere, as work was (and still is) hard to find in the former communist nation, now one of the latest additions to the European Union. Life was good during the communist regime, she reports; the problems came when it fell. Communism was a kind of insurance against unemployment, illness and famine - everyone had jobs to go to no matter how mundane, doctors attended to all the sick regardless of status, and food was distributed fairly. But when that all ended, goods started disappearing from the shelves in the stores. She remembers not being able to get hold coffee and sugar for a long time. Now she's never without a cup of coffee in her hands; she clutches the mug as if it's one of her most precious possessions, the outcome of the do-without syndrome in her past.

Margaret is my mother-in-law's live-in 24/7 carer. She cooks for her, helps her to eat, changes her clothes, and generally looks after her. On Sundays, she goes to stay with her son who is also working in Hania. When I first met her, I let her know that she could cook separate meals for herself if she didn't like the bland diet my mother-in-law preferred. "Oh no", she said, "I must be an extremely picky eater if I won't have what she's having." After the first three days of orzo rice for lunch and dinner, she asked me if I could just treat her as my third child, because that orzo rice stuff was now giving her diarrhoea. She preferred not to cook meals for herself; "waste of time and money", she said, as if remembering the harder times in her native country. Greeks have a lot to learn about economising from the new immigrants to the country.

Margaret opened up a new avenue for my cooking ventures. She loves vegetable dishes cooked in white sauces, something my very Cretan husband is not at all fond of - it's got to be tomato cerise red for him. She also likes artichokes, which my husband only eats raw in salads, cleared of furry thistles, cut into segments and dipped in lemon. When the artichoke plant is fully mature, it makes an attractive centrepiece in a vase as a flower. This is how my Kiwi friends viewed the artichoke, with its green plumage and purple fur (at which point the artichoke is not edible, so you will never be able to appreciate its beauty at our house, as they are all eaten). They couldn't imagine any other use for it. How human beings conceived the idea that the artichoke, with its thistled flowers, furry centre and thorny leaves, could possibly be an edible plant, I can only imagine - probably by watching animals eat it, or maybe during a famine. Once you try artichoke - either cooked or raw - you will be persuaded into growing it as a hedgerow round your house. Thanks to Margaret, I have the chance to enjoy my favorite Greek vegetable medley: artichokes in a lemon sauce (αγκινάρες α λα πολίτα; αγκινάρα = artichoke in the singular).

This dish has its origins in Constantinople, during the time when people referred to it as the 'Poli', meaning the City, the one and only important city in Byzantine times, inhabited by many people of Greek origin (among other nationalities). It is the most well known dish of the former Greek community whose numbers began to dwindle after the siege of Smyrna in 1922. The culinary flair of the ex-patriates left a legacy that lives on in Greece, and includes other famous dishes like soutzoukakia, with its spicy taste, colourful appearance and piquant flavor. This dish accentuates the arrival of spring with its vibrant colours. It is also often used in advertising campaigns promoting artichokes.

Although most people know what an artichoke looks like, I bet they don't know how to clean one. Where on earth is the edible part of the artichoke hiding? Cleaning artichokes is about as much fun as cleaning aubergines. The thorns prick you, your fingers turn black, and there is much waste. Our garden is bordered by artichokes, but they are not in season yet (they will be ready for picking at the end of March), so I've used frozen artichoke hearts, which are always tender and never stringy and fibrous. Artichokes are not cheap; fresh ones cost almost 1 euro each in the beginning of the season (when they are at their most tender), whereas a 400g packet of frozen artichoke hearts costs 6 euro for 7 large artichoke hearts cleared of all debris. I made a salad out of the fresh ones (to go with the packaged lasagne for my pickier eaters) and used the frozen ones in the stew. To make the dish more substantial, some humble (and cheap) peas are added. They suit the dish well in terms of colours and taste.

Some web pages show the cleaning process for artichokes step-by-step. I've included my own version here. Once the 'heart' is exposed, it must be dipped into lemon juice to stop the artichokes form browning, so you need to have a bowl of squeezed lemon juice handy before you start cleaning them. This is very important to maintain an attractive appearance, but the browning does not detract from their taste. The leaves are pulled away, and any other tough or purple-coloured parts are removed from the crop. If the leaves are tender (they will feel soft and have an open yellow-green colour), they are edible. The fur is cut away (and then scraped) with a knife. I always cut the hearts in half to scrape away the furry centre more easily. Care must be taken not to cut into the heart and waste any precious flesh! And if your fingers do become grubby, don't worry - make sure you have the squeezed lemon juice ready at hand to dip the artichokes in, and then rub your fingers and hands with squeezed lemon halves. Your hands will never have looked cleaner, and your skin shinier!

As you expose the artichoke heart, dip it into the lemon juice. When you have cleaned it completely, leave it in the lemon juice until you are ready to use it raw in a salad or cooked in a stew. Artichoke (like eggplant) flesh browns very fast. And once you've done all that, you will probably understand better why artichokes are not cheap...

This dish uses artichokes and roughly chopped vegetables that keep their shape when cooked. I added peas to the basic recipe; Nancy added chunks of celery to hers. I added leeks.
ou need:
8 artichoke hearts, cut into segments (frozen or fresh; don't even think of using tinned ones)
1 cup of olive oil
4 spring onions, sliced (ordinary onions can be used; a mixture is even better - I added some leftover leeks to use them up, but that is a deviation from the traditional recipe)
5 carrots, sliced into rounds
1/2 kilo potatoes, roughly chopped (preferably baby potatoes that can be cooked whole)
200g peas
a bunch of fresh dill, finely chopped (very commonly found in Greece)
juice from 2-3 lemons
salt and pepper to taste

Sauté the (spring) onions in a saucepan with the oil. Add the carrots and mix till they are coated in oil. Then add the artichokes, potatoes, dill, lemon juice, salt, pepper and enough water to cover them. Allow the vegetables to cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 hour before adding the peas, which don't need a long cooking time if they are frozen. It's that easy. The sauce can be thickened with a tablespoon of flour, but I prefer my sauces transparent. In any case, the starch from the potato thickens it nicely enough. This meal is so filling, that you only need a glass of wine (and maybe that ubiquitous feta cheese and sourdough bread) to accompany it. Meat will just spoil the taste of the artichokes. This meal can also be cooked in an egg-and-lemon (avgolemono) sauce, instead of just lemon (or flour).

©All Rights Reserved/Organically cooked. No part of this blog may be reproduced and/or copied by any means without prior consent from Maria Verivaki.

Poached salt cod
Lemon cake
Potatoes lemonates
Shrimp cooked in lemon
Meat in avgolemono sauce


  1. Maria, you're right, I did like this story. And I do love artichokes cooked this way, so it's great that you have someone to enjoy it with! Just hearing about your helper's life makes me really appreciate how lucky I've been. An important reminder indeed.

  2. Maria, let the Greeks know how lucky they are. My mom visiting Communist Bulgaria and it was no vacation either.

    On to Constantinoupoli...I had the pleasure of visiting this enchanted city last year (I might go again) and I encourage you to go one will move you as a Greek and a human. them, they are coming into season here soon and they are well worth the trouble to trim them.

  3. they wont find out how lucky they are unless they're forced out of their country, which is in a state of chaos, if you follow greek news...
    as for foreigners, i'm all for them. there are good and bad ones. just like good and bad greeks...

  4. delicious artichokes feast (after typo corrections)

    we prepare and eat artichokes this way:

    1. so that they will all fit into 1 deep cooking pot, the number of fresh artichokes we buy at a time, depends on their size and shape.

    2. we cut off just the tips of their stems. (if the cut does not expose an almost white stem center, cut off another inch or so of the stem, and check again:) where it has the same color as that of the artichoke heart, the upper central part of the stem is edible, and has the same flavor as that of the artichoke heart, so you certainly do not wish to throw away edible stem inches.

    3. cleaning is easy and fun: we hold each artichoke, stem down, flower up, under running tap water, so that the whole flower fills up with water. then we turn it upside down, rinse the stem and the outer leaves, turn the water off, and vigorously shake the facing down flower. (if the water pouring out of the flower is not clean, repeat, and check again.)

    4. after putting the artichokes in the cooking pot, we cover them with water, add salt (maybe 2 teaspoons) and/or a lemon (cut into say 4 pieces), start cooking, and lower the flame a bit when the water boils.

    note: as artichokes float if they can, try to find a pot where they fit so tightly that they remain all inside the water. otherwise, you'll have to either turn them over occasionally, or put something heavy on top of them, in order to cook all their sides.

    5. while the artichokes are cooking, we prepare at least 4 or 5 different dips:
    - the simplest (and a must) is just salty water: we stir and dissolve about 1/2 teaspoon of salt in about 1 glass of boiling water from our kettle.
    - most are piquant dips, based on a mixture of yogurt and soft cheese. for each of these, we add its own spicy ingredient(s) to that basic mixture: black pepper. or paprika. or crushed caraway seeds. or some oriental hot sauce. etc.
    - you may try using Tzatziki, lemon sauce, or any (piquant) dips you like.

    We like to have a variety not only of dip flavors but also of dip textures and thicknesses and colors. the spices and oriental sauces we mix into the white cheese and yogurt base, are red, brown, green, grey, yellow, … and we vary the yogurt to cheese proportion.

    6. when the dips are all ready, we completely clear the dining table, and then place on it:
    - several small bowls, each filled with one of the dips.
    - 1 or 2 large empty bowls or jars.
    - napkins.
    - teaspoons, to be used towards the end, and the climax, of the feast.
    - large personal plates.

    note: if all the artichokes are big, and especially if they have big hearts, then it is ok to serve less artichokes than the number of eaters, but you'll have to consider or ask who is willing to share a plate with another (adult or kid) and who must have his/her own personal plate.

    note: you don’t want the large bowls or jars to be transparent or to have a very wide opening. they will not remain empty, and their contents will not be a marvelous sight. Still, you want them to be handy and constantly used.

    note: each person and kid should be able to easily reach all different dips and the opening of 1 large bowl or jug. if you use good quality paper napkins rather than personal cloth napkins, nicely arrange them in 1 or 2 reachable piles. the teaspoons, on the other hand, may await their turn stacked in a small open container next to your plate.

    7. the artichokes are ready when, very gently pulling an outer leaf, tears it off, and the inner side of the leaf's thicker, lower, broader, part, is soft and "mashy". if you use your bare fingers to pull the leaf, then first scoop the artichoke out, and rinse one side to cool it a bit before touching it, then re-heat it in the simmering pot.

    if the stem tears off as you gently handle the artichoke, then the artichoke is surely ready, and the torn stem goes back into the pot too, to be later served along with flower (on the same plate).

    when the artichokes are ready, we all gather, take our seats around the table, and after emptying the pot into a large colander, shaking it to get rid of all water, placing it on a tray, (removing the lemon,) and serving the hot artichokes onto the large plates - the feast begins.

    note: if you have guests who've never before eaten this dish, it's nice to tell them, when the artichokes are served, that artichokes are eaten in 3 "steps", and that you'll demonstrate each "step" in its turn.
    then, when you actually demonstrate each "step", playfully ask everybody to imitate you, and encourage them to sample all different dips.

    note: as this dish is eaten with bare fingers, special care should be taken that hands are well washed, before sitting down. this is easily done when kids are present, because then it is funny and acceptable to ask everybody to gather not at the table but at the wash basin.

    8. the first and longest "step" of the feast: thick leaves.
    these are torn off, dipped, and eaten, one by one.
    you hold each leaf at its pointed outward end.
    first, you pull it, and dip the leaf's broader half or more (the whole "mashy" part of the leaf).
    next, you put the whole dipped part in your mouth, gently closing your teeth on both leaf sides, and slowly pulling the pointed end away, so that your upper front teeth scrape the soft "mashy" layer off the thin hard layer of the leaf.
    then, still holding the pointed end of the leaf, you put away the hard part of the leaf, in the large bowl or jar. (used paper napkins go there too.)
    this lets your plate be not only nicer looking, but also roomy enough for rolling your artichoke over, time and again, to reach the thick leaves all around it.

    if you share your plate with a young kid, you may pull and arrange around his/her side of the plate several leaves at a time, to cool them, and to avoid messing your artichoke.

    note: for the thicker dips, the leaves are used as spoons: you scoop the dip with and into them, filling their inner curve. so, if and when you demonstrate the first "step", present all the dips, and eat at least 2 leaves, 1 dipped in the salty water, and 1 scooping a thick dip.

    9. the next and shortest "step" of the feast: soft inner leaves.
    eating the last thick leaf, leaves a cone of bright yellowish-green soft inner leaves, and these are torn off, dipped, and eaten, "ring" by "ring". now you hold each "ring" at its pointed outward end.
    first, you pull it, and dip the "ring" (almost up to your fingers).
    next, bite by bite, you eat the whole dipped part of the "ring.
    then, still holding the pointed end of the "ring", you put it away, in the large bowl or jar.
    there are only a few such "rings".
    the last "ring" is not edible, its leaves are too thin, and hard, and white or pink or purple.
    we do NOT pull out this last "ring".

    10. the last "step" and the feast climax: hearts of artichokes.
    when all get to their last "ring", it is time to:
    - pass the spoons container round the table, for everyone to pick 1
    - expose the hearts of the flowers and the stems
    - cut the hearts into bite size pieces
    - pour a teaspoonful of dip over each piece
    - and, very slowly, eat these last artichoke pieces.

    we do it all with teaspoons alone.

    you may prefer to use also:
    - small knives, for exposing stems hearts, and for cutting pieces
    - small forks, for dipping pieces rather than pouring dips over them.

    in any case, remember that:
    - small, round, unsharp, spoons are the best tools for carefully separating whole hearts from the inedible parts that surround them
    - a whole flower heart is exposed by gently scooping the last "ring", together with the "thick hair" beneath it, out of the heart's inner curve.
    - a whole stem heart is exposed by gently peeling off the "fibre strings" all around it
    - the stem heart and the flower heart have the same color and flavor, but not the same texture and firmness. all hearts are "breakable". stem hearts are even more "breakable" than flower hearts. therefore, teaspoons are better than forks for coating and eating the heart pieces.

  5. thanks for this interesting way to make artichokes a key ingrdient in a feast - i can't imagine my kids enjoying them (this is a refined taste), but i would love to eat them in this way