When I put the words "food + spring + Mediterranean" into my mental search engine, artichokes are first to pop up. A couple of years back, I spent a week in Sicily in April, which is peak artichoke season there. You could buy a dozen for 1 euro, and they were on every restaurant menu in every imaginable form: baby ones fried crisp, large whole globes stuffed with bread crumbs, and artichoke hearts in salads, vegetable medleys and pasta sauces. I returned home forever artichoke-inspired.
The accompanying recipe taps that inspiration in a way that requires minimal effort and yields maximum pleasure and healthfulness. Artichokes top the nutritional charts with their concentration of protective antioxidants. By steaming them and serving them whole, you don't need to fuss with scooping out their chokes (the inedible purple-ish inner fibers) or removing the hearts before cooking.
Here, what can be tedious for the cook becomes fun for diners of all ages once the vegetable is cooked, as they pluck off each leaf, dipping it in sauce before scraping the meaty part off with their teeth. They eventually get to the tender treasure of the heart, and the choke easily falls away from it when scraped with a butter knife.
Rather than the butter- or mayonnaise-based dip that is typically served with artichokes prepared this way, I up the nutritional ante on the creamy accompaniment with a savory yogurt dip that is enriched with extra-virgin olive oil, parsley and saffron.
STEAMED ARTICHOKES WITH SAFFRON YOGURT DIP
4 large artichokes (about 3 pounds total)
Pinch saffron threads
1 tablespoon boiling water
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 large shallot, minced (1/4 cup)
3/4 cup plain low-fat Greek-style yogurt
Leaves from about 5 stems flat-leaf parsley (1/3 packed cup)
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Cut off the artichoke stems so the vegetables can sit upright. Peel off the woody, green exterior of each stem and keep the tender cores. Cut off and discard the top 3/4-inch of each artichoke, then rub the cut tops well with the cut side of the lemon half (to keep the vegetable from discoloring). Squeeze 1/2 tablespoon of juice from the lemon half and reserve. Use scissors to snip off the sharp top from each artichoke leaf.
Arrange the artichokes and pieces of peeled stems in a large steamer basket set over at least 3 cups of water in a pot, over medium heat. Cover and steam for 35 to 40 minutes or until the leaves can be easily removed and the artichoke hearts are tender when pierced with a knife. About halfway through the cooking, check the water level and add more as needed. Transfer the artichokes and stems to a serving dish.
Meanwhile, stir together the saffron and boiling water in a small bowl. Let it sit for a few minutes.
Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the shallot; cook for 3 minutes or until it's softened and beginning to pick up color. Remove from the heat.
Combine the saffron and its water, the shallot, yogurt, parsley, the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil, the reserved lemon juice and the salt in a mini food processor; puree until smooth. Transfer to a serving bowl and season lightly with pepper. Serve as a dip with the artichokes and peeled stems.
Makes 4 servings.
Nutrition per serving: 240 calories, 10 g protein, 21 g carbohydrates, 15 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 240 mg sodium, 9 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar