ARTICHOKES, shaped like a blossoming lotus, are one of the earliest harvests in spring and now their hearts are tender, flavorful and delicate.
The thistle vegetable that originated in Europe is famous in Italian, Spanish, French and other Mediterranean spring menus, adding color, flavor and crunch.
"After their first bite, many people are addicted to its distinctive flavor and nice crunchy texture," says Eric Wu, executive chef at Courtyard by Marriott Shanghai Pudong, who has worked in Italian restaurants for many years.
The artichoke is a perennial thistle that originated in the southern Europe around the Mediterranean and plays a key role in regional cooking, says Luca Pulese, executive chef at Twelve at Hengshan, Shanghai.
Although both leaves and heart are edible, most people only eat the heart and the tenderest inner leaves - and sometimes the tasty pulpy base of the outer leaves.
Southern Italy, southern France, Spain and the Middle East are the top production areas and this month is the best time to taste artichokes from Spain and Italy, chef Pulses says.
In the past, Shanghai's top hotels relied on imported artichokes in tins or jars, but now fresh artichokes are sourced locally, which ensures freshness.
"Local artichokes are relatively smaller, but the flavor and texture are of same quality as the imported vegetables," chef Wu says.
The style of cooking and eating are different in Italy and France.
When it's fresh and in season artichoke hearts are often used by Italian chefs as a main ingredient in salads, pizza and pasta, says chef Wu. He recommends simply grilling it and serving with balsamic vinegar and olive oil.
"Grilling not only retains its natural crunchy texture and delicate flavor but also gives it a slight smoky taste," he says.
Chef Pulese prefers braising artichoke hearts with garlic, olive oil and parsley to enhance the delicate taste.
Artichoke hearts are frequently a side ingredient to meat and seafood, says chef Wu. He considers artichoke hearts and beef a "golden pairing" because the artichoke brings out the meat's fatty aroma.
Chef Pulese says richly flavored fish and artichoke complement each other.
In the world of French cooking, artichokes are served very simply, or in complex recipes.
Traditionally artichoke is boiled, then the leaves are peeled away and the base of the leaves is eaten first, dipped in hollandaise sauce or fraiche (soured cream) with vinegar. After the leaves are removed and eaten, then the heart is eaten.
A more complex recipe is artichoke barigoule, braising its heart with shallots, bacon, tomato, coriander seeds and white wine, says David Chauveau, French chef de cuisine at Sir Elly's Restaurant at The Peninsula Shanghai.
He recommends serving artichoke hearts with meat, lamb, fish such as turbot, cold cuts or tomato to appreciate the thistle.
Shanghai Daily picks four artichoke dishes from hotel chefs' latest spring menu.
Turbot with baby artichoke (288 yuan+15%)
Chef Chauveau creates the dish to feature authentic Provencal flavor and a Mediterranean food experience. The versatile artichoke is combined with celery, fish and ham.
The turbot is pan-fried in butter to highlight its creamy taste and served with a baby artichoke heart, a light puree of celery, Spanish ham and topped with chicken broth. The whole dish is finished with drops of Xeres vinegar, made from sherry and featuring a rich, nutty flavor.
"All the ingredients and seasonings used are in Provencal and Mediterranean style. If diners feel as though they are in Marseilles or Barcelona, I would say I have reached my goal, chef Chauveau says.
Venue: Sir Elly's Restaurant, The Peninsula Shanghai
Address: 13/F, 32 Dongshan Rd E1
Spaghetti with artichoke(78 yuan)
This is a representative home-cooked dish in Sicily, a famous artichoke-producing area said by some to be the birthplace of the artichoke.
Green artichoke hearts are shredded and stir-fried with white clam meat in clam broth. Olive oil is then added.
The delicate artichoke heart brings out the umami flavor of the clam.
"I recommend trying this simple dish at home," says chef Wu. The artichoke is best boiled in lemon water to prevent oxidation before it's stir-fried.
Artichoke pizza(108 yuan)
In this classical spring dish from Italy, crunchy artichoke hearts, fragrant garlic, fresh chili, sweet and sour tomato sauce and crispy onions are grilled together with cheese.
This produces a light, balanced and fresh flavor with rich textures.
It is made in Napoli style, soft and slightly chewy, roasted to a golden color with bubbling crust.
Venue: Spices Café, Courtyard by Marriott Shanghai Pudong
Address: 1/F, 838 Dongfang Rd
Striped bass with artichoke ravioli(new dish, price not decided)
The dish combines Italian and French culinary traditions, with harmony and balance in texture and flavor.
The artichoke-stuffed ravioli is served with a fillet of pan-fried striped bass and a spoon of beurre monte, or emulsified butter sauce.
The dish is garnished with sautéed carrot batons, pearl onions and tomato and topped with barigoule vinaigrette made from artichoke.
The intense artichoke flavor complements the rich bass.
Venue: Tops & Terrace, Twelve at Hengshan, Shanghai