Artichokes

The artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) may have thorns and an armor-like appearance, but it is a vegetable with a tender heart.

This member of the thistle group of the sunflower family is a perennial plant native to the Mediterranean region and one of the oldest cultivated plants in the world, recorded as early as the 5th Century B.C. Ancient Greeks and Romans considered them a delicacy and an aphrodisiac–reserved for men only. The vegetable was known in Italy by mid-15th Century and spread beyond. In the mid- 16th Century, Catherine de Medici broke the artichoke barrier for women by eating them openly and often. She is credited with making artichokes famous when she brought them to France.

French settlers brought them to the Louisiana Territory in the early 1800s, the Spaniards brought them to U.S. in the late 1800s and the Italians brought them to California in the early 1900s.

The artichoke is one of the most visually interesting vegetables. Each of its tiered outer leaves/petals (botanically speaking, they are bracts) is tipped with a thorn. The edible fleshy part of the leaf is at its base, which is attached to the heart. The inedible “choke” or beard (from the Italian articiocco or modern day carciofo) is a layer of thistle-like, immature petals protecting the heart.

Anatomy of an Artichoke

The artichokes we eat are actually immature flower buds of a plant that grows to a diameter of six ft. and 3-4 ft. high in deep, well-fertilized soil. The larger globes are picked from the top of the plant, the “baby” artichokes from lateral shoots.

Only about 40 of the more than 140 varieties of artichokes are grown commercially, mainly in Southern Europe (Italy, France and Spain), North Africa and the U.S. The uncultivated wild variety is called a cardoon, which looks like celery stalks. The Jerusalem artichoke is a tuber and unrelated.

Peak seasons are March through May and October. Nearly 100% of the U.S. crop is grown in California. Ocean Mist Farms, the largest grower of fresh artichokes in U.S. is based in Castroville, Calif., known as the “Artichoke Capital of the World.”  Castroville holds an annual Artichoke Festival each May for tastings of innovative artichoke recipes — and to crown an artichoke queen (and in her pre-starlet days, Marilyn Monroe held the title).

Buying & Storing

Look for artichokes of deep green color that are heaviest and firmest. Leaves should be thick and closed or nearly closed. Press leaves against each other — a fresh artichoke’s leaves will make a “squeaking” sound

Avoid artichokes with open leaves (indicates they are overripe), and those with areas of black or dark brown color on the base or tips of leaves (signs of rot). Also avoid varieties advertised as “thornless,” as they have less meat and flavor.

Artichokes should be cooked when fresh as possible. Raw vegetables may be stored for a short time. First slice off about ¾ in. of stem, sprinkle with water [do not wash] and refrigerate in an air-tight plastic bag. Cook within 5-7 days.

Cooked artichokes should cooled completely and covered before placing in the refrigerator, where they will keep for up to one week. Reheat in microwave or oven before serving.

Preparing & Cooking

Wash each artichoke thoroughly and turn upside down to drain water. Discard a few small outer leaves at the base. Rest the artichoke on its side and use a sharp, serrated non-carbon steel knife and saw off the tope third of the leaves. (A carbon steel knife will turn choke black.) Snip off top half inch of the leaves to remove the prickly thorns. With a paring knife, peel off outer layer of the stem and edges at the base of the leaves that were discarded.

Note: When cooking, do not use aluminum or cast iron plans as the artichokes will turn a dark gray.

Flavor Affinities

The artichoke has a natural affinity for garlic, lemon juice and olive oil, all Mediterranean natives, but just a little butter, salt and pepper can go a long way too.  Tomatoes, onions, parsley, thyme, mayonnaise and parmesan also work well.  Be careful when pairing artichokes with wine. Cynarine, the chemical constituent in cynara found in the pulp of the  leaves, makes water, drinks and foods seem sweet.

Eating An Artichoke 101

Artichokes are not a fast food. They are best savored at a leisurely pace. First, set out a dish for discarded leaves. Remove leaves one at a time from the base. If desired, dip into a sauce of choice. Hold the leaf with curved side down and position base side in your mouth. Now grasp the middle of the leaf between front teeth and slide off the fleshy part. Place discarded leaves in dish.  Now discard the small circle of tiny thin leaves that surround the choke and remove the bristly choke. You have reached the succulent, meaty heart, which can be cut into pieces or enjoyed dipped into sauces. The peeled-back stem of certain varieties can be as delicious as the heart.

Nutrition

This no-fat, no cholesterol treat may be enjoyed in many ways as there are varieties of artichokes.Steamed, baked, sautéed, grilled, boiled, marinated, microwaved… even made into tea. Each medium-sized bud is loaded with vitamins, minerals: potassium (400 mg), magnesium, Vitamin C, dietary fiber (10.3 grams)  and protein (4 grams).

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Frances Fiorino
Frances Fiorino, a journalist based in Washington, D.C., has worked for Conde Nast, Time, and McGraw-Hill. Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., she delighted in helping her Sicilian father nuture three beloved fig trees – not to mention eating the bounty.

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