Artichokes and White Asparagus – two great culinary reasons to be in Spain and Italy in the Spring! Artichokes (Cynara scolymus) are believed to have evolved from Cardoons and are credited to Sicily or more likely, Northern Africa, and have been enjoyed for many, many centuries. They are frequently mentioned in books, recipes, etc. from the 1500â€™s and onwards, according to Elizabeth Schneiderâ€™s book, Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini and Alan Davidsonâ€™s The Oxford Companion to Food. Artichokes were at the peak of their season in late-April and early May and I fully intended to get my fill of this vegetable that is generally not available fresh in Manila. Over the course of two weeks, we had young artichokes battered and fried, raw artichokes sliced and served in salads with superb olive oil and a touch of lemon, boiled or steamed and served with a dip of olive oil and anchovies. I also understand that folks in Barcelona grill them and serve them with olive oilâ€¦yum.
At the markets, they were an utter bargain and nice medium sized artichokes could be purchased for 1 Euro per kilo which included roughly 7 pieces. I purchased some one afternoon from a pile of very fresh artichokes with tight heads (as soon as the bracts start to open, itâ€™s past its prime) at La Boqueria. Back at the apartment, I trimmed them and plunged them into a pot of boiling water for a few minutes until cooked. I prepared a simple olive oil and balsamic dip and started to munch on the leaves by using my two front teeth to scrape off the tended insides of the leaf. I quickly discovered that these artichokes were quite young and VERY fresh so there wasnâ€™t much meat to scrape but the hearts were absolutely delicious. We ate them with some excellent slices of Jamon Jabugo and my daughter finished at least 1 and Â½ artichokes (this was the first time she has ever tasted them, I think)! I think I ate close to 4 artichokes! At restaurants throughout the trip, I was amazed to see how their menus so closely reflected what was at the markets at that point in timeâ€¦this is so different from our restaurants here in Manila.
Also on offer were these incredibly spectacular white asparagus. Medium thick stems and very tight heads, these only needed a slight peeling of the stem a quick blanching in hot water and served with butter or a vinaigrette. We had them as an appetizer at home one evening and they were intensely asparagus-y, but with a flavor more complex than the ordinary green asparagus. I can actually see why these are prized in some parts and if you manage to get incredibly fresh specimens, they are really good. I have actually found white asparagus in Manila before and while pretty good, their European cousins were very impressiveâ€¦I like white asparagus either hot or cold, the latter in salads… The white asparagus were more expensive than the artichokes, about 6 Euro per kilo but you can easily feed 4 with a kilo of white asparagus…