Saffron-Infused Artichoke Soup with Lemon

 

By Danielle Frum

I first came across this soup at the historic Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul. I was in Turkey to trace what remnants I could find of the once thriving Jewish culture under the Ottomans. Like so many of the exotic combinations of spices and ingredients I would come across in Turkey, this soup struck me as both wonderfully evocative of its place and yet also so simple. Jews seem to have a passion for artichokes (the best I've ever tasted were in the old Jewish quarter of Rome: a whole artichoke somehow flattened, breaded and deep fried...). Spring is artichoke season; as they make their way from California to markets everywhere, I try to include them in as many dishes as I can.  

This soup is a perfect first course for a spring Shabbat dinner, not least because it is so easy and quick to make. Its taste, however, is not simple: the mingling of mellow saffron, earthy artichoke and a zing of lemon make for an unexpected and delicious soup. 

Try to use the best quality broth (preferably homemade) and saffron -- and then don't skimp on the saffron. Until I’d wandered the Spice Market of Istanbul I hadn’t appreciated the dramatic differences in quality of this unique, pricey herb – from the bottles of bland, ground yellow powder familiar in Western supermarkets to small expensive threads carefully packaged in wax paper. At the Spice Market I encountered the rarefied Persian variety, currently unavailable in North America. The threads are deep crimson with golden points, and sold in tiny vials. I found you didn’t need much more than a pinch to create a deeply aromatic saffron flavor in any given dish.

Saffron afficianados recommend steeping the saffron in a couple tablespoons of hot water or broth before adding it to a recipe: the heat releases the flavor and allows its distinctive yellow color it to be more evenly dispersed throughout the ingredients. You can soak it in advance anywhere from two to 12 hours. As for the artichokes, the good news from an ease perspective is that the flash-frozen or vacuum-packed fresh artichoke hearts now common in most grocery stores work well here, and save you the hassle of peeling and removing the choke from this otherwise difficult, prickly vegetable.

Serves 4.

1 large pinch of best quality saffron threads, pre-soaked as above
1 tbs olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 whole cloves of garlic, chopped
1 pound artichoke hearts, trimmed and quartered, or 2 packages of frozen artichoke hearts (1pprox. 16-20 oz), thawed
4 cups chicken stock
Juice of one lemon
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Heat oil in a heavy saucepan over medium heat, and sauté the onions until soft, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute or so. Add the artichokes, the soaked saffron, and then the broth. Bring to a boil, cover, reduce heat and simmer until the artichokes are cooked and soft, about 7 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Use an immersion blender to puree the soup in the pot. (You can also puree the soup in batches in a food processor or blender.) Season with salt and pepper, and then add lemon to taste. Be careful: the lemon should not overwhelm the flavors of saffron and artichoke, but just give the soup a tangy edge. You may not need to use all the juice of one lemon. Serve immediately.

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