Artichoke season is still going strong in Spain, with huge piles of them in the markets. Artichokes are a cold weather crop that are at their best from November to April. Once the weather heats up, the artichokes will grow too quickly, open their leaves and begin to transform into beautiful but inedible flowers.
Artichokes are actually thistles that are native to the Mediterranean. They have been grown in Italy since ancient times, when they were considered aphrodisiacs by the Romans. They were brought to Spain by North African Moors around 800 AD. Spain is the third largest producer of artichokes in the world after Egypt and Italy. In the United States, however, almost all artichokes come from California where they are in peak season in spring and fall.
Crema de Alcachofas (Creamy Artichoke Soup)
The abundance of artichokes in the markets inspired us to come up with an easy way to enjoy them at home. Cremas – pureed soups – are very popular in Spain. Spaniards will puree pretty much anything into a soup. This Crema de Alcachofas (Creamy Artichoke Soup) is quick and easy, especially if you use frozen artichoke hearts.
Frozen artichokes are very convenient, similar in flavor to freshly steamed artichokes, and are available year round. We recommend using baby artichokes for a smoother soup.
If fresh baby artichokes are available and you’ve got some free time, you could take advantage of them. Remove the tough outer leaves and stems and roughly chop the artichoke hearts. You’ll need to increase the cooking time in this recipe, as frozen artichokes are precooked.
We started with two leeks, white parts only, cut in half lengthwise and then sliced into 1/4 inch strips. The leeks were washed well to remove sand between the leaves. These went into a large stock pot with slices of garlic and plenty of olive oil.
One large yukon gold potato was peeled, sliced and added to the pot. The starches in the potato add a creamy texture to the soup. The vegetables were sauteed until they started to soften.
The thawed artichokes were roughly chopped in half and tossed in the pot with the chicken stock, thyme leaves, and a bit of salt and pepper. We also added some cayenne pepper, just enough to make the flavor pop without adding noticeable heat.
All was simmered together for about 20 minutes until the artichokes and potatoes were nice and soft. (Pull off an outer leaf from an artichoke and take a bite to check for tenderness.) The pot was removed from the heat and allowed to cool for a few minutes before blending it all up with an immersion blender. The puree was pretty thick, so we added a little water to thin it out.
Once the soup reached a nice smooth consistency, we added a little heavy cream (this is optional) to create a more silky texture. It only took about a 1/4 cup of cream to get a smooth crema. After adding a little more salt and pepper to taste, the soup went back on the stove to heat up before serving.
Now, this soup on its own is rich and satisfying, but it could use a little garnishing to compliment the flavors and make it more interesting. We tried crispy roasted artichokes and croutons, which added a crunchy contrast but didn’t enhance the flavors much. Really good, but it could be better.
The magic occurred with the addition of salty ham. Serrano jamon was sliced into thin strips and fried in a pan over medium-high heat until crispy. We ladled the soup into bowls, drizzled it with some good extra virgin olive oil, and generously sprinkled crispy salty bits of serrano jamon on top. Now this is a match made in heaven. Yum!
Creamy Artichoke Soup (Crema de Alcachofas)
18 oz frozen baby artichoke hearts, thawed
2 leeks, white parts only
1 large potato, Yukon Gold
3 garlic cloves, sliced
1 liter chicken stock (4 cups)
1/4 cup heavy cream (optional)
1/4 cup extra virgen olive oil
4 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves removed
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Water to adjust consistency
optional for garnish: 3 oz cured ham like serrano or prosciutto, sliced into thin strips and fried in a pan over medium-high heat until crispy.
- Thaw artichokes and roughly chop into halves or quarters.
- Remove dark green parts from leeks. Slice white parts in half lengthwise and chop into 1/4 – 1/2 inch slices. Rinse leeks well in water to remove any sand and drain in colander.
- Slice the garlic cloves; no need to mince.
- Peel and cut potato in half and then into 1/4 inch slices.
- Heat olive oil in a large stock pot over medium heat.
- Add leeks, potatoes, and garlic and cook until vegetables are softened, about 5 to 10 minutes.
- Add artichokes, chicken stock, thyme leaves, salt, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook until artichokes and potatoes are very soft, about 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool for a few minutes before handling.
- Using an immersion blender, blend all ingredients together in the stock pot until you have a smooth puree. If the soup is too thick, add water to reach the desired consistency.
- Continuing with the immersion blender, blend in the heavy cream, add salt and pepper to taste.
- Return blended soup to stovetop to warm soup before serving.
- Cook Serrano ham in frying pan until slightly crispy. Using kitchen shears, cut the ham into ¼ slices.
- Ladle into bowls, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with crispy ham.