“The artichoke, with a tender heart, dressed up like a warrior…” so begins “Ode to the Artichoke” by Nobel Prize in Literature winner Pablo Neruda. The simile is an apt one – it is indeed an “armored” vegetable, with tough, scale-like outer leaves providing protection for its tender core. It looks like an armadillo, hiding its beauty behind rows of armor plates.
Artichokes have a great deal in common with lobsters…it’s hard to imagine how anyone saw their potential. Artichokes are one of those foods you either love, or hate...or haven't tried. It's surprising how many people are intimidated by this thorny-looking green, which resembles a Christmas tree, or maybe a green pine cone. Safe to say, though, that if you have never tried an artichoke, you don't know what you’re missing.
Controversy still exists about whether the artichoke is a flower, thistle, or a vegetable, but for our purposes we shall say that an artichoke is an herbageous perennial, with strong, prickly, deeply–cut leaves, and large terminal heads, harvested before they bloom, of the thistle that is a relative of sunflowers. The artichoke is, in fact, a giant closed blossom; the “leaves” we peel off to get to the heart are actually petals, and in a season when it’s difficult to find fresh vegetables, this flower blooms all winter.
The latin name for artichoke comes from a story about a beautiful girl named Cinara, who angered Jupiter, who turned her into an artichoke. Many ancient legends tell of human beings turned into plants, by the gods as an honor, but turning Cinana into a prickly artichoke was definitely a punishment! In the Bible, Job associated the artichoke with pain and suffering, in contrast with grain, which was linked to prosperity and happiness. In spite of such negative connotations, Mediterranean people have long enjoyed artichokes’ delicious flavor, and honored its nutritional and medicinal values. Artichokes hail from the family “Asteraccae compositae”, so named because the members have small flowers (florets) born in dense composite heads, resembling single flowers. The basic plant is (Cynara Scolymus). It is a particularly temperamental plant, craving rain and fog, but requiring very good drainage; relishing cool weather, but dying when exposed to frost; needing clear air, but suffering much damage from any great sun exposure. Artichoke plants are beautiful, like giant ferns – six (6) feet in diameter, and 3-4 feet high. If allowed to flower, they have blossoms up to seven inches across, and a beautiful violet-blue color. It is propogated by seeds or by suckers (shoots).
The name came from the Arabic “al qarshuf”, and was brought by Moroccan invaders to Spain, where it became “alcachofa”. In the 9th or 10th century, the Italians changed it to "carciofa". It derives its common name from the Northern Italian words “articiocco” (today Italians say “carciofo”). The Greek naturalist Theophrastus observed artichokes being cultivated in Sicily around 300 BCE; by the year 800 CE, the Moors were growing them in Spain.
Botanists hypothesize that artichokes may have been cultivated in Sicily as early as 300 B.C., the Greeks and the Romans are said to have enjoyed eating them with honey and vinegar. Some attributed artichokes cultivation to Greece, while others insist that both used wild “cardoon” or “cardone”, the artichoke’s thistle-family cousin, and that the artichoke was developed from the cardoon in Egypt, North Africa, or Syria, based on a reference from the 9th century.
Always a delicacy, artichokes were popularized by Catherine D'Medici, who was married at fourteen (14), to Henry II in France. Catherine earned herself much disdain with a notorious artichoke appetite, in an era when artichokes were a famed aphrodisiac. Cultivars from France and Spain were brought to the United States in the early 1800s, and were first cultivated commercially in California and Louisiana. But it wasn’t untl nearly a century later, when Italian immigrants in San Mateo County, in Northern California, found artichokes to be well suited to the region’s sandy coastal soil and temperate climate, that commercial cultivation began on a large scale.
Whoever was responsible, we are thankful for artichoke preparation ranging from Arabic couscous-stuffed artichokes, to Spanish baby artichoke tapas, to Italian carciofi alla romana, to Syrian artichoke hearts with olive oil. The tender bases of the petals, and the fleshy heart to which the petals are connected, are the edible portions.
The world’s main growers are Chile, China, Ecuador, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Peru, Spain, and The U.S. We buy our artichokes from Asia, and South America. Italy produces more artichokes than any other nation, followed by Spain.
Jerusalem artichokes are a tuber, the root of a variety of the sunflower plant. They are sometimes marketed under the name “Sun-chokes”. Jerusalems are not artichokes at all, and have nothing to do with Jerusalem. Jerusalem artichokes are actually a tuber, the root of a variety of the sunflower plant.
California has less than 10,000 acres in artichokes, but 75% of U.S. artichokes come from Castroville, California (dubbed the artichoke center of the world), where artichokes hold the title of "the official vegetable of Monterey County". Castroville is a coastal hamlet between Monterey, and San Jose. At the Castroville Artichoke Festival, deep fried artichokes are the big money earner, but in many local restaurants, grilled artichokes are the favorite. California artichokes are available in most markets all year, but peak season is March through May, with a small harvest in the Fall. Early spring/winter artichokes are grown in Southern California’s Coacholla Valley, where it is dry. Spring artichokes are compact/firm/heavy for their size. Summer artichokes tend to have longer thorns, and their leaves are more open in appearance. Winter artichokes are more conical in shape. Some fall/winter artichokes may be “winter-kissed”, and have a brown tint to the outer leaves. Some fans prefer these artichokes for their nutty, rich flavor. The winter artichokes do revert to their grey-green color when cooked. In 1947, Marilyn Monroe was crowned the first Queen of the Artichokes!
According to Patricia Rain's "The Artichoke Cookbook", the first written record of artichokes in the United States was in McMahon's Gardeners Catalogue in 1806. The artichoke’s best-known relatives include lettuce, sunflowers, asters, endive and chicory. . In the mid-1800's, French immigrants brought artichoke plants to Louisiana where the Creole artichoke was grown. While there are up to 50 types of artichokes worldwide, virtually all (90%) cultivated in the U.S. are of the Green Globe variety.
The artichoke we import is a non-native crop to South America. It was introduced a few hundred years ago by the Spanish, but never became a staple food. It remained confined to the highlands, and seldom found its way to the cities. A few years ago, at the request of Spanish buyers, a few growers started experimenting with seeds from both Spain, and the US. They planted artichokes in the fertile coast at the foot of their mountains, and were startled by the yields they obtained. The growth of the artichoke canning industry in South America is testimony to the richness of this land, its unique climate, and the resourcefulness of its business people.
The artichoke season extends for six (6) months in South America, ten (10) weeks in Spain. The yields per hectare (up to 25 metric tons in the north), are 25 to 30% better than the fields in Spain. Some say the quality is recognized to be superior (the artichokes are generally smaller), and the best canners have developed processing techniques that minimize the use of citric acid, therefore preserving the natural taste of the artichoke.
Artichokes from Spain are produced for the fresh market from October-June. The main areas of production are Ancona, Castellone, Tarragona, and Valencia, and to a lesser degree in Murcia, Toledo, and Tudela. The most widely-cultivated varieties are Blanca de Tudela, French Verde de Provence, Monouelina and Wolete. Artichokes are normally consumed in Europe in the cold weather months. When the weather is unusually warm, as happened in recent years in October-November, there is an early flowering of the artichoke plants. While this is unfortunate for the farmers, since they cannot sell this early crop in the fresh market in Europe, it is good for us in the brine pack - as they are competitive in price. The majority of packers, however, wait until February-March to begin production, since this is the main flowering of the artichoke plant (usually there are 3 pickings per season). When there are huge quantities of raw materials, it can cause a second weakening in the fresh market, since the fresh market cannot absorb all the production of Murcia. The flowering lasts through May…later will cause the vegetable to toughen. The traditional time to book artichokes in Spain has been in March-May at the latest.
The key to obtaining a quality end product is in the purchase of raw material. Artichokes are generally sold at auction, and there is a wide range of qualities available to the packers. The norm is to have a poor yield (20-22%) from the poorer quality raw material, and a better yield (30-31%) from the better quality raw material. The finished product produced from the better raw artichokes will tend to have a higher quality, and freedom from defects.
Today just about every town in France/Italy claims its own artichokes, which fosters the assumption that there are hundred of varieties. In reality, somewhere between 8-11 varieties exist, with many regional European hybrids. In the United States, only the Green Globe artichoke is readily available.
Artichokes can be grown within the strip between the sea and 2.5 to 3mi inland. Further inland than that, it gets too cold and the product gets spiled by frost. It’s a find line-it needs to be as cold as possible without actually freezing. The climate is very important. Too much heat makes the artichokes open too quickly and become hairy inside. For that reason, the best time to eat them is from November to April, when low temperatures give a compact, crisp product that is full of flavor. These dates will, of course, vary according to region: the further south you go, the earlier the harvest.
During spring and winter, artichokes are generally compact, firm and heavy for their size. In the summer and fall, artichokes tend to be conical in shape. Choose spring and summer artichokes with an even green color. Fall and winter artichokes may be touched by frost --”winter-kissed”-- with a whitish, blistered appearance. Color ranges from light bronze to brown on the outer leaves. While browned artichokes may look “funny”, many consider them to be the tastiest. They turn green when cooked.
To gauge an artichoke’s freshness, look for a stem that’s intact and green rather than brown or missing, as the stem is the first part of the vegetable to rot. A good artichoke looks like a closed bud. As the petals open, the flesh grows tougher. You can store a nice tight artichoke in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator for up to a week before cooking it. Sappy artichoke juice can stay on your hans for days, so wear rubber kitchen gloves for cleaning and prep work. The easiest way to cook artichokes is to place them in a large pot of boiling water with a little white wine, lemon juice, salt, and fresh haerbs. Keep the pot at a simmer until the artichokes are tender, approximately 20 to 45 minutes, depending on size. If you like the classic lemon-juice-and mayo sauce, spice it up by adding a dash of Tabasco. If you’re in the mood to try something new, buy a jar of kalamata olives, and chop up a small handful to mix into a vinaigrette with some olive oil, black pepper, fresh chopped herbs (like parsley or mint), lemon juice, and some of the brine from the olive jar.
Size has little to do with flavor or quality. But those with compact, heavy, plump globes which yield slightly to pressure and which have large, tightly clinging fleshy leaves are the best. Choose deep-green, heavy artichokes with leaves that squeak when pressed together. Browning may mean old age, bruise injury, or frost. Refrigerate artichokes, unwashed, in plastic bags up to 6 –8 days, at 32F with high humidity. Artichokes are available in a variety of sizes from “baby” to “jumbo”. All are mature when picked. Small or baby artichokes weigh 2 to 3 ounces each and are ideal for appetizers, casseroles or sautés. When properly trimmed, every part is edible. Medium artichokes weigh 8 to 10 ounces each, serve them with a low-fat dip, or stuff with hot or cold meats as a light entree or salad. When trimmed, they can be sliced and sautéed or used in a stir-fry. Large artichokes weigh 15 to 20 ounces each. This size is often served whole with a dip such as aioli, remoulades, or served with olive oil. Whole artichokes can be baked or stuffed. Increasingly, warm/cold pasta salads feature artichoke hearts. Artichokes can be served, diced, quartered, julienned, pureed, quartered, and/or sautéed. Artichokes are fun to share as an appetizer for two or more people.
The artichoke’s appeal is more than just gastronomic; it possesses medical properties that have been known since antiquity. Roman doctors prescribed drinking the cooking juices from artichokes as a treatment for gout and other ailments. Recent research has shown that cinarine, a substance present in artichokes, has choleretic properties: this means that it stimulates liver cells to increase the output of bile-in other words it acts as a natural liver medicine, helping in the digestion of food and preventing digestive upsets, such as acid stomach, and a feeling of being too full. Increased bile production also helps bring down cholesterol levels by facilitating its expulsion from the body and reducing the amount of cholesterol that the liver produces. By the same token, artichokes also help protect against hepatic diseases such as liver failure.
They are also packed with diuretic components that eliminate liquids from the body. Their rich acid and mineral content, in combination with cinarine, increases diuresis (the quantity of urine eliminated). This effect is not only highly beneficial in cases of water retention, but it also makes artichokes a popular ingredient in weight-loss diets. Because they are high in fiber, they contribute to a feeling of satiety, htereby making it easier to avoid other, more calorific foods-another benefit for people aiming to slim down.
The artichoke has emerged as an even better source of disease-fighting antioxidants thatn chocolate, blueberries, or red wine, according to a Norwegian study of 1,100 foods. Accoring to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the Top 5 antioxidant foods are;
Artichokes are rich in vitamin C, and are a good source of folic acid, and magnesium. Artichoke leaves are rich in caffeylquinic acids which break down fat, improve digestive flow, and deliver powerful nutrients (act as a tonic) for the liver. Artichokes are very low in salt, high in fiber, and contain no cholesterol/fat. The vegetable is low in calories (25 calories for a 12 ounce choke), and for the low carb dieter, they have six grams of carbohydrates, and three of them are dietary fiber. Artichokes are also rich in flavinoids, which protect against cell damage, and have a high chance of phosphorus and potassium.
An artichokes has four main parts. The stem should be trimmed and peeled; rub the cut parts with lemon to prevent discoloration. The leaves should have their pointy ends snipped; when cooked, the meat at the base of the leaf can be eaten by scraping the flesh between your teeth. The heart, the tender yellow-green prize at the center of the bulb, is hidden under the fuzzy interior choke, which should be discarded. The bottom can be used as an appetizer/base.
Artichokes can be boiled, braised, fried, microwaved, roasted and/or steamed. Although fresh artichokes are consumed largely for the fleshy base of the prickly leaves of the bud, processed artichokes are primarily "hearts," or the bases of those buds after leaves “bottoms”, and the embryonic lavender blossom portions are removed. James Beard thought artichoke bottoms the most desirable part of the artichoke - “delicious, round, meaty” and suggested them as a serving base “for such delights as foie gras, or breast of quail”. Saucer-shaped, the tasty bottom is found within the artichoke, underneath the heart. Their convenient cup shape is perfect as an appetizer, entree, filling, or side dish.
Artichokes need be clean, fresh, sound, and in good condition to be packed in brine/marinated. They must be free from rot and mold, and have reached a suitable degree of ripeness. Artichokes are graded for their character (firm/properly shaped/trimmed), color (yellow to light green), uniformity in size, and little tolerance for defects. Our packers warrant that each product supplied is free from any/all adulterations, and meets/complies with applicable standards, rules and regulations for safety, as established by the FDA, the USDA, and all federal/local/state/government food and health authorities.
Commercial products are quartered or whole hearts, packed both in glass and tin. Packing media are oil and vinegar requiring a finished pH of 4.5 or less ("marinated"), or packed in water ("brine"). Artichokes packed in water have less fat, fewer calories, and adapt more easily to your favorite recipes vs. artichoke hearts packed in oil. Typically, if your recipe calls for hearts/bottoms, product in cans/jars are best, as no trimming is necessary, no cutting out the thistle, less time and labor, no discoloring, and no seasonal considerations. Product is stored easily, more flavorful and tender than frozen. Quality is known - as are counts/sizes.
If the artichokes is cherished in the part of the world where I live, it is positively sacred in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern countries, where all sorts of varieties of the vegetable are cultivated and consumed in abundance – the while tudelas of Spain, the violet midis of southern France, the cylindrical catanese of Italy, and many more. What’s more, in places like Rome, Damascus, Athens, and Cairo, steaming or boiling is just the beginning. The historic canon of artichokes recipes is full of preparations both simple and elaborate that have been savored since antiquity. The vegetables can be fried whole (for a Roman preparation called alla guidia), stuffed with seasoned bread crumbs and bakes (an Italian-American favorite), stewed with garlic (an Egyptian dish called kharshouf bi zeit), simmered and served with preserved lemon and honey (a dish of Moroccan origin that can be eaten hot or cold), roasted with rosemary-infused lamb and potatoes (popular in Greece), sautéed in an omelette (a Greek and Syrian favorite), and cooked with fava beans (a springtime treat all over the Mediterranean).
Promotions are year-around for this product. The artichoke’s nut-like flavor and velvety texture, when cooked, make it a popular hors d'oeuvre, appetizer, or salad garnish. It may be served hot or cold, and is a staple ingredient in many dishes. Artichokes are easy to prepare, fun to eat, and delicious too.
Healthy dips for artichokes include low-fat yogurt blended with Dijon mustard, light mayonnaise blended with lemon juice, or simply with our Napoleon Balsamic Vinegar and Olive Oil.
It is both polite/proper to pluck the leaves with your fingers, leaving knife/fork aside. Pull off an outer leaf, hold it by the pointed end, put the other end in your mouth, pull it between your teeth, scrape the length of the leaf (for the soft, edible pulp)…the result is a mouthful of a savory artichoke – perfectly proper, downright delicious. Discard the remaining leaf. Continue until you reach the purple-tipped cone of leaves. Lift off, and scrape away the fuzzy center at the base, and discard. The bottom or the heart of the artichoke is entirely edible. Cut into small pieces, and enjoy!
With their subtle flavor and toothy textue, artichokes lend themselves to all sorts of fast, simple preparations. Here are some of our favorites.
Napoleon grilled baby artichokes have a delicate yet concentrated flavor and a crisp exterior.
One of our favorite ways to use tangy marinated artichokes is for crostini; just spread some creamy mascarpone or ricotta cheese on a piece of toasted country bread that’s been rubbed with a bruised garlic clove, then toss the Napoleon artichoke hearts on top and garnish with snipped chives.
A staple of Southern garden club and church luncheons, the tea sandwich takes on a more satisfying dimension with the addition of artichokes; simply cut the crusts off sliced dark bread, and slather it with a homemade spread of artichokes pulsed in a food processor with some mayonnaise or olive oil.
We always try to keep a jar of Napoleon marinated artichokes on hand for pasta dishes or omelettes.