Artichoke season in Israel

Globe artichokes are native to our Mediterranean region, among the oldest known cultivated vegetables in the world.

THE HEART of the matter: Purchasing artichokes at Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market (photo credit: MICHELLE GORDON)
THE HEART of the matter: Purchasing artichokes at Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market
(photo credit: MICHELLE GORDON)
I was standing on my mirpeset (balcony) with its view of the Israel Museum, pretending to be the Statue of Liberty and posing for my very first Facebook profile picture. My torch was large, heavy and green. It had a sturdy thick handle and pointy projections. It was an artichoke.
We never had artichokes the size of Lady Liberty’s lamp back in the Old Country of America. At Snider’s Superfoods in Silver Spring, Maryland, we were lucky if a mediocre artichoke could be had for a reasonable price. Here in our new homeland, where we’d arrived just weeks before, the outdoor markets were piled high with vegetables on steroids. Leeks like baseball bats, cauliflower heads the size of giant brains. And artichoke torches.
(Note: Do not confuse these green “globe artichokes” with “Jerusalem artichokes,” which are tubers and resemble a cross between a chunk of unpeeled ginger and a small multi-eyed space alien.)
Globe artichokes are native to our Mediterranean region, among the oldest known cultivated vegetables in the world. In the 16th century they were thought to have aphrodisiac powers. Israel grows two main varieties: one more purplish and elongated, the other green and roundish. Do not be intimidated by their armor of thick, sharp leaves, or by the shuk vendor’s cigarette ashes gently fluttering down on your prospective purchase.
It was Matt Mangoya, my husband’s work colleague, who first introduced us to this species of thistle whose edible portion consists of the flower buds before the flowers come into bloom. Matt’s life had come into bloom but he died before his time, and we have been evoking his name for the 35 years that we have been improving on his recipe for stuffed artichokes. And the Gordon Secret Dipping Sauce – specialite de maison, s’il vous plait.
Go to the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk and look for the largest artichokes you can find. They are more expensive per kilo than the smaller ones and may be hidden in a cardboard box on the floor beside the vendor. Be persistent.
Wash the artichokes and using a very sharp knife, cut off the stem and the top third of the artichoke. Using kitchen shears, cut off the tips of the remaining “leaves”.
These are not really leaves, they are the outer part of the flower. The mass of immature florets in the center of the bud is called the “choke” and you will immediately understand why. You don’t want that mess of prickly, fibrous trouble getting stuck in your throat.
Take the trimmed artichoke in your mighty hand and smack it smartly on your cutting board. A few times. Thwack, thwack. This will empower you for the task ahead – to remove the “choke.” The thwacks will loosen the “leaves” and you can now pull them apart to reveal the smaller immature purple petals that would have grown into the thistle’s flower. Underneath the purple petals lies the choke and under the choke lies the heart.
Rummage around in your kitchen drawer for a small sharp knife and that poor hapless teaspoon that fell into the sink garbage disposal one too many times and became a serrated grapefruit spoon. Put on your surgical scrubs.
Grab the purple center petals and plunge the knife along the circumference around them until you can lift them out. Take your serrated spoon and scrape out the choke thistles. Practice makes perfect, and you will develop the right feel for this curettage procedure.
You now have a nice empty space to stuff on top of the base of the vegetable, the delicious, fleshy part that is called the “heart.” You have gotten to the heart of the matter. Your fingertips may be stained a dark green. Wear your new color proudly.
Stuffing for two artichokes:
Mix together ½ cup of seasoned breadcrumbs, ½ tomato diced, ½ small onion diced, 1 clove of garlic diced and 1 or 2 teaspoons of grated Parmesan cheese. Stuff this into the open cavities of the artichokes, packing it down as you go. Drizzle a capful of olive oil over each masterpiece and set them on artichoke steamers in a large pot of boiling water and cover.
Set the timer for 90 minutes. Israeli artichokes take longer than their American cousins. Pour yourself a glass of wine and think about how healthy artichokes are. How high in antioxidants, vitamins and fiber.
And here’s something else to digest: Sometime around 1948 while the new State of Israel was defending its soft and tender independence, Marilyn Monroe was being crowned Artichoke Queen in Castroville, California. Think about the annual Artichoke Festival there, which features sales of artichoke souvenirs and “artichokes – fried, sautéed, grilled, marinated, pickled, fresh, creamed as soup and cooked into cupcakes.”
Okay, enough reverie. It’s time to make the secret sauce.
Dipping Sauce:
Mix together two small containers of plain 3% yogurt and the following ingredients to taste: granulated garlic, paprika, hot red pepper, dill, lemon juice and a bit of olive oil. Taste the sauce frequently. This is why God gave you fingers.
Set the table, nicely please. Eating stuffed artichokes is an occasion. Don’t forget that wine. A nice Cabernet will do for you and your dining companion. Put out a bowl for discarding the “leaves.”
Now how on earth do you eat those things?
Pull off one “leaf” at a time and daintily dip the fleshy part in the sauce, turn the leaf upside down and pull it between your teeth. Soon you will be hearing moans and groans and murmurs. You will momentarily forget that you are in the dining room. You will forget all about antioxidants, space aliens and Marilyn Monroe.
You will be torn between going slow and savoring each artichoke morsel, or the rapture of pulling out the leaves, three at a time, drizzling the sauce on the stuffing and smacking your lips. When you get to the heart of the artichoke, your ecstasy moans will have the neighbors guessing. And then, the silence of artichoke bliss.