A few weeks ago, I read a book whose sensitivity touched me deeply. It was Fresh water for flowers, written by Valérie Perrin. It is the story of Violette, the caretaker at a cemetery in a small town in Bourgogne, of terrible losses and rebirths, absences and determination in believing in happiness. There are mysteries and love stories that cross time, redeeming friendships and precious moments of everyday life.
What stand out in these quiet moments – lived in the shelter of a cosy house, or in the vegetable garden – are the salads made with fresh seasonal vegetables, or simple dishes such as the pasta with tomato sauce that Violette would prepare for the few friends who come to visit her, for the gravediggers and the cemetery priest.
Quick allusions, but sufficient to bring out the importance of carefully prepared food as an antidote to pain, loneliness and melancholy.
In difficult days such as the ones we are experiencing now, in Italy and abroad, I keep thinking about those meals that Violette would cook for the people she loved. I crave for simple food, made with seasonal vegetables, cooked with care. We should never forget the importance of gathering around a table, preserving humanity despite everything, sharing the simple comfort of a meal.
It was these feelings, and the crave for something simple and comforting, that inspired today’s recipe.
Ancient grain and artichoke salad
Recipe developed for Del Colle.
In a notebook, I started sketching a map to get to the salad I had in mind, of which I could picture the tactile, gustatory and olfactory sensations rather than the actual ingredients. In short, I knew what I wanted, but I still had to understand how to get there.
The starting ingredient is Del Colle’s Sfiziosa Antichi Cereali, a mix of buckwheat, ancient grains – such as farro, basmati rice and barley – and yellow and green lentils. It is a balanced meal on itself, it would only need a drizzle of good olive oil. For me, though, it was the starting point of my quest for a warm and comforting salad, perched in between the end of winter and the first days of spring.
I wanted to combine this mix of pulses and grains with a seasonal vegetable.
March is the month of artichokes, a portentous vegetable, a flower in bud actually, which lead us from winter to spring. They appear in our weekly menus just before Christmas, shyly stealing space to butternut squash and broccoli. I use them in flans and side dishes, especially baked with potatoes and pecorino cheese in a gratin.
Then slowly the artichokes reveal their spring potential, the herbaceous notes enhanced by mint or lemon. So, I use them in the best soup of the new season, the garmugia, in a carpaccio of thinly sliced raw artichokes with pecorino cheese, or in savoury pies, which call loudly for the first sunny days.
How to cook them to make a well-balanced salad, in which one ingredient would not overshadow the others?
I had two options: either a gentle cooking, poaching the artichokes in acidic water, with aromatic herbs, lemon and a little olive oil just to give the artichokes a rounder taste, or, on the opposite, a more aggressive cooking. This would require stewing them on a higher flame, with more olive oil, so as to have soft artichokes inside but with golden, crisp outer leaves, with a caramel aftertaste.
Even though the aggressive cooking is my go-to choice every time I prepare the artichokes for a side dish, for this March warm salad that should have had herbaceous, acidic and refreshing tones, just like in the first days of spring, I chose the delicate poaching. The artichokes thus remain softer, with an acidic note, and blend in with the other ingredients.
From here, everything began to revolve around a base of legumes, cereals and artichokes. Aromatic herbs such as thyme, fresh oregano and mint – the only herbs that are growing in the garden now -, a quick improvised green sauce made with parsley, capers and extra virgin olive oil as a dressing. Some fresh and crisp celery, to add crunchiness.
And now, let’s see how to make this warm salad perched in between the end of winter and the first days of spring.
Warm salad with artichokes, pulses and ancient grains
- 1/2 lb Sfiziosa Antichi Cereali Del Colle, a mix of farro, barley and lentils
- 5 artichokes
- a few sprigs of thyme
- a few sprigs of fresh oregano
- a few mint leaves
- ½ teaspoon peppercorns
- 2 cloves garlic
- 2 cups water
- 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 lemons
For the dressing
- 1 cup parsley leaves
- 1 tablespoon capers, rinsed
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Fill a bowl with water and squeeze a lemon into it. Clean the artichokes by removing the hardest external leaves, then cut them in half, rub them with half a lemon and dip them into the acidic water. Clean also the artichoke stalks, peeling them until you reach the whiter, softer part inside, rub them with half a lemon to prevent them from browning.
- Place artichokes and artichoke stalks in a pan, add the aromatic herbs, the cloves of garlic, and a few peppercorns. Season with salt.
- Cover the artichokes with water, olive oil and the juice of a lemon, then close the pan with a lid.
- Cook the artichokes, covered, for about 15 to 20 minutes, over medium low heat, until soft.
- While the artichokes are cooking, prepare the mix of grains and pulses. Bring a pot of water to a boil, salt it and then cook the Sfiziosa Antichi Cereali for about 10 minutes, then drain and drizzle with extra virgin olive oil. Add the celery, cut into rounds, into the mix of grains and pulses.
- Prepare the dressing now. Finely chop the parsley with the rinsed capers, then add the olive oil and mix well.
- Now prepare the salad, mixing the grain, pulses and celery with the artichokes: leave some whole, and cut others into smaller wedges.
- Season with the green sauce of parsley and capers and serve immediately, until warm.
Working with Del Conte
Del Colle is a Tuscan company that offers a selection of the best legumes and grains. They have Italian and regional specialties, but also unique varieties from other countries.
Today I used a mix of Ancient grains and lentils. They have a whole line, Le Sfiziose, of pulse and grain mixes which are ready in 10 minutes and do not require soaking. Le sfiziose are certified from a nutritional point of view to guarantee a healthy and balanced dish. They can be used in salads, as I did today, but also as side dishes, first courses and soups.
Pulses and some types of grains often intimidate us because they require to be soaked in advance – which we often forget to do – but with the Le Sfiziose line we really manage to improvise a dinner – something I am a master of, because I am still far away from a proper weekly meal plan – including those ingredients that require a longer preparation time. This means more freedom, creativity and inventiveness in the kitchen.
More recipes with artichokes from the blog archive
- Artichoke carbonara. Peel the stems until you expose the white soft part inside – if you haven’t ever tried this part of the artichoke, you’ll be surprised! This is where all the flavour is! – and slice them thinly in rounds. You’re going to use the artichoke stems as they were guanciale, or pancetta, in a wintery vegetarian carbonara. If you can not find artichokes with a good, firm stem, use the artichoke itself to make the carbonara. Clean it and slice it very thinly, then cook it in exactly the same way as the stems.
- Potato and artichoke gratin. The potato and artichoke wedges cook well covered with breadcrumbs and grated pecorino cheese, which have been soaked in water and olive oil and infused with Mediterranean aromas. When I take the gratin pan out of the oven, I can not help but smile: it is the smell of home, of days perched in between winter and spring, the comfort of a dish made with simple ingredients which, together, become a soulful meal.
- I carciofi ritti – Upright artichokes. Prepare artichokes with a good dose of patience, as you are supposed to clean them, removing all the tough outer leaves, and open them by hand, like a rose. Then you stuff the artichokes with a battuto made of garlic, parsley, salt, black pepper and carnesecca, as you read in the old books of Tuscan cuisine. Use two slices of pancetta and chop everything by hand, on a cutting board. There’s also a video recipe showing you how to clean the artichokes.
- A Few Words on How to Cook Artichokes, on 101 Cookbooks.
- Lemony Artichoke Spaghetti, on The Splendid table. This dish comes together as quickly as it takes to boil the water for the pasta.
- From the New York Times, Julia Moskin’s practical and exhaustive guide on how to make a salad, from the choice of the ingredients, to the layering of taste and nutrients, up to the dressing.
- From the New Yorker, a Helen Rosner’s interview with Samin Nosrat, on how her life, and her relationship with food, have changed after the success of her book and her show on Netflix. They talk about veganism, Samin’s next book, and depression. Spoiler: there is also a very interesting fact about beans!