Every spring, as nature awakened after the gray of the winter, Crete comes alive with a symphony of blossoms from its verdant hills covered in olive groves, citrus orchards, and vineyards to hundred of gorges hidden between rugged mountains. It is a special time of the year when taking advantage of the fresh seasonal produce available at farmers’ markets, in the wild, minimarkets, and supermarkets is part of every Cretan’s grandmother’s routine. Besides horta and fresh herbs, the locals consume artichokes – either raw with olive oil and lemon juice or in salads or cooked in traditional Cretan and Greek dishes.
The artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) is a thistle, a close relative of the wild cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), yet counting as a superfood despite its humble origin. Its natural composition, rich in minerals, fiber, and vitamins, is beneficial for digestion and lowers blood sugar. Research suggests improved heart and liver health due to artichoke consumption. The plant is rich in antioxidants and essential vitamins like vitamin C (15% of the RDI when cooked) and vitamin K (22% of the RDI when cooked). Artichoke leaf extract positively impacts cholesterol levels, lowering LDL cholesterol levels and increasing HDL levels.
Artichokes count among the oldest produce used in cooking and medicine. We own the first documented mention of the plant to Greek naturalist Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.), who reported the cultivation of artichokes in Sicily. Later on, Greek physician and botanist Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90 A.D.) mentioned the potential usage of artichokes to dampen offensive body odors in Peri hulēs iatrikēs (in Latin, De materia medica).
Highly versatile and offering a pleasant potato-like taste when cooked, the artichoke is the star of many Mediterranean recipes. On Crete island, the locals consume the youngest of the artichokes raw, drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice, and seasoned with salt. They don’t make complex dips to enjoy the bitter-sweet taste of the green leaves of the plant. Artichoke hearts are often steamed, then consumed just like the raw leaves, with olive oil, lemon, and salt.
Lamb with artichokes is a seasonal dish you simply must try when you visit Crete in springtime. It will be available in some traditional tavernas and restaurants serving Cretan fare. If you want to make it at home, here’s a recipe from Incredible Crete.
Lamb with artichokes recipe:
- 1 kg lamb meat (no bones) – coarsely chopped
- 200 ml good quality olive oil
- 1 small bunch of dill or fennel
- 2 lemons
- 10 artichoke hearts
- 4-5 scallions
- 2 eggs
- 200 ml lamb stock (broth or vegetable stock)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Saute the meat in oil over high heat until brown. Add a glass of water, reduce the heat to low, and let simmer for about an hour before adding the rest of the ingredients.
- Keep the artichoke hearts in a bowl with water, salt, and lemon to prevent them from oxidizing. When you are ready to add them over the simmering lamb, rinse and drain, then chop them in strips. Add them to the pot.
- Chop the scallions and dill (or fennel) and add them to the lamb and artichokes. Add some water (cover the mixture evenly), cover with a lid, and let simmer for 45 more minutes over low heat. Do not uncover the pot, but shake it occasionally to prevent sticking.
- When the meat and artichokes are tender, they are ready. Remove from heat, and prepare a sauce called avgolemono to pour it over the lamb with artichokes before you serve it:
- Beat two egg whites until foamy
- Add two yolks, juice from two lemons, and 200 ml stock, and whisk well.
- Pour the sauce over the lamb with artichokes, cover with a lid, and allow it to rest 5-10 minutes before you serve it.
There are many other ways to cook artichokes. They taste delicious in salads and stews, but also soups. Try cream of artichoke soup – easy and quick to make – to enjoy the taste of this fantastic seasonal vegetable in the spring.