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Celery and parsley sprigs are the universal springtime symbols on the Seder plate, but we have them year round. A more striking sign of the season is the artichoke. This might explain why artichokes are especially prized for Pessah, the festival of spring, in traditional Mediterranean Jewish kitchens.
Artichokes originated in North Africa, and are greatly appreciated there. Often they are paired with other springtime vegetables, notably those that come in pods, fresh peas and green fava beans. Tunisian and Algerian Jews turn the artichoke and fava combination into an elaborate Pessah meat stew called msouki, which might include a dozen different vegetables with plenty of garlic and an exotic spice mixture of mint, cloves, nutmeg and dried rose buds.
The first time I ate this dish, at a North African Jewish restaurant on Rue Montmartre in Paris, it contained lamb, artichokes, fava beans, peas, carrots, zucchini and tomato paste. A Tunisian woman I met at the restaurant told me she makes hers of only green vegetables - artichokes, fava beans, spinach and spring onions, cooked with beef or lamb.
Moroccan cooks turn artichokes into springtime tajines, simmering them with meat, fresh peas or green fava beans and ginger, saffron and garlic, then finishing the stew with preserved lemon and olives. In Algeria, artichokes, peas and meat might be stewed with onions and cinnamon, or in a red sauce with tomato paste, red pepper and cilantro.
Some cooks include as many fresh herbs and vegetables as possible, to accentuate the flavor and feeling of spring. Sylvie Jouffa, author of La Cuisine Juive a Travers le Monde (Jewish cooking across the world), cooks artichokes with peas, fava beans, carrots, turnips, cauliflower, fennel and lots of herbs - dill, mint, cilantro, leeks and parsley.
Variations on these springtime stews appear around the Mediterranean. Turks and Greeks, for example, stew artichokes with fresh fava beans, dill and olive oil. In France, artichokes might be simmered with fresh peas, baby carrots and pearl onions.
To use artichokes in stews, you need only the artichoke bottoms. To prepare them, there are two ways to proceed. You can simply simmer or steam the whole artichokes, then pull off or eat the leaves, and leave the bases to use in stew. In restaurant kitchens, chefs cut off the leaves and cook the artichoke bottoms on their own. This way the artichokes cook much faster. To learn how to do it, see below.
SPRINGTIME MEAT AND ARTICHOKE STEW
This type of entree is made with beef, lamb or veal. If you prefer to substitute lamb or veal for the beef, they'll cook faster, in about 11â„2 hours. You can make it with fava beans, either fresh or frozen, or lima beans instead of the peas. If your family does not eat peas or other legumes during Pessah, double the amount of squash. Serve the stew with boiled potatoes or rice or, to serve it msouki style, crumble matza into it at the end to thicken it.
If you have preserved lemons, chop a little and add it at the same time as the olives.
1 kg. boneless beef shoulder or beef stew meat, cut in 4-cm. cubes
2 Tbsp. olive oil or vegetable oil
3 medium cloves garlic, chopped
1â„4 tsp. saffron threads or turmeric
About 21â„2 cups water
salt and pepper to taste
1 tsp. ground ginger
4 fresh artichoke bottoms, cooked (see below), or 16 frozen or canned artichoke heart pieces
650 gr. fresh peas, shelled (about 11â„2 cups) and rinsed, or 11â„2 cups frozen peas
450 gr. summer squash (kishuim) or zucchini, diced
1â„2 cup pitted brined black olives, drained
1 tsp. lemon juice, or to taste
1 to 2 Tbsp. chopped parsley (optional)
Heat oil in a heavy stew pan over medium-high heat. Add enough beef cubes to make one layer and brown them. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon and repeat with remaining meat cubes.
Add garlic to pan juices, stir briefly over low heat, then add 1â„4 cup water and saffron. Bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve any brown bits in casserole.
Return meat to casserole and add any juices from plate. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and ginger and stir over low heat to coat meat with spices. Pour in remaining water. Bring to a boil, skimming off froth that rises to top. Cover, and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, about 21â„2 hours or until beef is very tender when pierced with a knife; if too much water evaporates during cooking, added a little more from time to time so meat remains moist.
If using fresh artichokes, cook as in recipe below. If using frozen ones, cook artichoke pieces in a medium saucepan of boiling salted water with one teaspoon lemon juice for about seven minutes or until tender. Drain well.
Remove meat from casserole with a slotted spoon. Boil cooking liquid, stirring, until it is reduced to two cups. Add peas and bring to a boil. Cook uncovered over medium-low heat for 10 minutes or until just tender. Return meat to sauce, add artichokes and olives, and heat over low heat two minutes. Add lemon juice; taste and adjust seasoning. Serve sprinkled with parsley.
Makes 4 servings.
COOKED FRESH ARTICHOKE BOTTOMS
Squeeze juice of 1/2 lemon into a medium bowl of cold water. Break off stem of one artichoke and largest leaves at bottom. Put artichoke on its side on board. Holding a very sharp knife or small serrated knife against side of artichoke (parallel to leaves), cut lower circle of leaves off, up to edge of artichoke heart; turn artichoke slightly after each cut. Rub cut edges of artichoke with cut lemon. Cut off leaves under base. Trim base, removing all dark green areas. Rub again with lemon. Cut off central cone of leaves just above heart. Put artichoke in bowl of lemon water.
Repeat with remaining artichokes. Keep artichokes in lemon water until ready to cook them.
Squeeze any juice remaining in lemon into a medium saucepan of boiling salted water. Add artichoke pieces. Cover and simmer over low heat until tender when pierced with knife, 15 to 20 minutes. Cool to lukewarm in liquid. Using a teaspoon, scoop out hairlike "choke" from center of each artichoke.
Cut each artichoke in four pieces before adding to stew.
Faye Levy is the author of 1,000 Jewish Recipes.