I don't remember exactly when the artichoke and I first met, but it didn't go well. I think I was in California visiting an old college roommate and honestly, I wondered what all the fuss was about. (So much work for so little reward.)
Flash forward maybe 15 years to the first week of a new just-out-of-culinary-school gig as a prep cook in a high-end, high-volume restaurant in Philadelphia. We lowly prep cooks worked in the basement/dungeon, where the supervising sous chef would bark orders at us. One day, the barker handed me a crate of artichokes, which she wanted trimmed all the way down to their hearts, scrubbed free of their chokes. A senior prep cook took pity on me, handed me a pair of latex gloves and showed me how to painstakingly trim the thorny beasts. I'd learned a lot of things in cooking school, but artichoke butchery was not one of them. Several pairs of gloves, finger knicks and hours later, I had made my way through that crate and sworn off artichokes for the rest of my days.
I quit that dreadful job after three weeks, and eventually I gave the artichoke another chance - boiled bracts with a sauce (again) and still I didn't understand. But a trip to Italy changed all that. One bite of pan-fried carciofi flattened under a brick, and all those memories of pasty boiled bracts floated away. They were nutty and chewy and garlicky, and now I could see what the fuss was all about. But cook them at home? All I could think about was the barking sous chef in the dungeon.
It took writing this column for me to come back to the artichoke, and I am pleased to report that we are reunited, and it feels so good. This loving feeling, however, is far from unconditional; it's "baby" artichokes I now dream about - those that grow lower on the plant in the shade of leaves and their upper bunk neighbors, resulting in more tender, less thorny morsels no bigger than a softball.
And now, for the report.
Food historians are split over the artichoke's point of origin: North Africa or Sicily? Was it a mainstay of Greco-Roman times, as some have claimed? Or were they confusing it with the cardoon, its wild ancestor?
Derived from the Arabic word Al-kharshuf, the artichoke enjoys immense reverence in Egypt, Turkey and other parts of the Levant, so my bet is that it originated in Tunisia and the surrounding area before making its way across the Strait of Sicily.
According to Mediterranean food historian Clifford A. Wright, the artichoke likely made its way to mainland Italy in the mid-15th century. About 100 years later, Florence noblewoman Catherina de Medici, intrigued by its supposed aphrodisiacal powers, imported it to France after marrying King Henri II.
Artichokes followed French and Spanish settlers to Louisiana, and California and Florida (respectively) around the early 1700s. It was among the first group of vegetables Thomas Jefferson experimented with on his Monticello estate, around 1770.
The first US commercial crops were grown in Louisiana in the 1880s. In the 1890s, Italian immigrant farmers started planting them in California. By 1926, the artichoke industry was 12,000 acres strong.
Castroville, California is the hub for US artichoke production and the self-described artichoke capital of the world. Every May since 1959, Castroville has hosted an artichoke festival, complete with a parade, cook-offs and the crowning of an artichoke queen, the first of whom was one Norma Jean Baker (in 1948, years before the festival was founded) a young actress who would later find fame as Marilyn Monroe.
You can drink your artichokes, too. Cynar, an Italian artichoke liqueur, has been on the market since 1952.
Botanically known as cynara scolymus, the artichoke is a member of the Asteraceae (sunflower) family, a large tribe that includes cardoons, marigolds, chicory and calendula. It is a cultivated variety of a thistle, a prickly flower; left unharvested, it blossoms into an enormous (inedible) flower head. What we know as the artichoke is essentially an immature bud.
According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) Italy is the top producer of artichokes, followed by Egypt, Spain, Peru and Argentina.
In the US, virtually all commercially grown artichokes come from California, mostly the green "globe" variety. In recent years, smaller growers have been experimenting with cultivars that our friends in the Mediterranean have been enjoying for centuries. There's a whole world of artichokes that that we've yet to see on this side of the pond.
The conventional artichoke is excluded from the Environmental Working Group Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce , which means it's neither a model pesticide-free choice nor a major offender. But there's a twist: As Deborah Madison writes in her new book, Vegetable Literacy, artichokes "constitute a monocrop, and because they grow in a climate that is hospitable to all kinds of problematic creatures and conditions - moths, aphids and the like - artichokes tend to be heavily sprayed with pesticides."
But that legacy is changing. Since 2000, all artichokes from Ocean Mist, reportedly the country's largest commercial grower of artichokes, have been certified by NutriClean, a third party certification program for pesticide-free residue. Although not certified organic, Ocean Mist is transitioning from conventional to organic methods (including 350 acres of organic artichokes in operation), as described on its website.
(See our veggie rule of thumb*.)
In California, artichokes are grown pretty much year round. For the rest of us, the peak is March through May, then again to a lesser extent in early fall.
An anatomy lesson is in order for this complex creature.
Starting from the top: Your first point of contact will likely be the thorns located at the tip of the exterior bracts (more commonly known as petals), which are typically a darker shade of green than those on the inside (at least for the green "globe," the most commonly grown variety in the US).
At the other end, you'll find the stem, which may need trimming and peeling, but is delicious and well worth keeping intact. Going north from the stem, you'll find the bottom or crown, which contains the "heart," the prized part of the plant. But before claiming your prize, you'll need to scrape away a fuzzy mass called the "choke," found in the more developed (medium and large) artichokes. The smaller the artichoke, the more tender its heart, and the less "choke" there is to remove.
Just 64 calories, a medium artichoke contains a whopping ten grams of fiber and more than three grams of protein, and is a respectable source of folate.
But the most compelling nutritional argument for eating artichokes? Antioxidants. A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that among "foods consumed in the United States" the artichoke is the fourth most antioxidant-rich food per serving, after blackberries, walnuts and strawberries. In fact, it's the most phytonutrient-dense of all the vegetables studied - even virtuous broccoli and spinach don't even come close.
Cynarin is one such phytonutrient found in the leaves of the artichoke plant and has been studied for its potential to lower blood cholesterol. It's also been researched for its ability to stimulate the flow of bile from the liver and gallbladder, potentially as a treatment for gallstones.
Artichokes of all sizes (and grown by any method) will benefit from a brief soak in lukewarm water with a teaspoon or salt or vinegar to help draw out any trapped critters or dust. Make sure artichokes are completely covered in water, then gently pry open the bracts to coax out any lurking unwanted debris.
How you trim and prep an artichoke depends on how you like to eat it. For many, the only way to enjoy an artichoke is to cook it whole until tender all the way through, by boiling, steaming or baking. The goal is extracting the meat from within each bract, most successfully done with the tugging force of your front teeth, usually with some kind of dipping sauce nearby. For this option, trim the tips of the outer bracts to make for a seamless (and painless!) extraction.
Whole artichokes can also be stuffed, often with seasoned bread crumbs, in between bract layers. A messy but festive option.
If you're like me and have no interest in sucking on sauce-covered bracts, then you're after the heart. For this option, I recommend the smaller "baby" artichokes, which as mentioned earlier, are typically free of chokes and much easier to trim than their bigger boned siblings.
Size notwithstanding, if the heart and surrounding crown is your goal, you'll need to trim a good half-inch off the top and peel away the darker bracts until you reach the lighter colored, more tender layers. Then slice the artichoke in half lengthwise (including the stem) and quickly spoon out the choke. Keep in mind that as soon as the inner workings are exposed to air, the artichoke begins to discolor, even more quickly than an apple. Have a bowl of acidulated water at the ready to protect trimmed artichokes as you work.
Trimming artichokes is a tedious task, often more time consuming than the actual cooking. Once trimmed, you can roast, sauté, braise or fry (in the Roman Jewish style, aka carciofi fritti), tossed into pasta, added to frittatas or folded into pilaf. Again, to maximize the benefit-work ratio, I recommend baby artichokes.
Deborah Madison notes that artichokes have many "good companions," including: olive oil, butter, garlic (as well as aioli), parsley, Parmigiano-Reggiano, asparagus and leeks. You'll see many of these artichoke chums featured in the recipe that follows, which has inspired this artichoke wallflower to truly blossom.
Keep refrigerated in a loose-fitting paper or mesh-style produce bag to minimize moisture (I find that plastic bags create more moisture than paper). Use within three to five days of purchase, the sooner the better/fresher.
Roasted Baby Artichokes
Adapted from Family Table by Michael Romano and Karen Stabiner (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
½ cup olive oil
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) fresh lemon juice
3 garlic cloves, finely chopped
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
Salt and black pepper to taste
12 baby artichokes (about 2 pounds)
2/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1 cup dried bread crumbs, preferably homemade (Good store bought option: Panko)
1/3 cup coarsely chopped fresh Italian parsley
Place the olive oil, lemon juice, garlic and pepper flakes in a shallow 9x13 dish or bowl large enough to accommodate the artichokes.
Prep the artichokes: Slice the woody end of the stem. With a vegetable peeler, peel the outer layer of the stem. With a sharp knife, slice the top ½ inch of each artichoke. Peel away three or four layers of the tough outer leaves (aka bracts) until you find lighter green layers. Slice the artichokes in half lengthwise.
Place in the vinaigrette immediately to minimize discoloration. Allow artichokes to marinate for about 15 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Remove the artichokes from the vinaigrette and transfer to the prepared baking sheet. Reserve any remaining vinaigrette. Roast the artichokes for 30 minutes, or until fork tender when pierced all the way through.
Meanwhile, mix together the cheese, bread crumbs and parsley in a small, plus 2 tablespoons of the reserve vinaigrette.
Spoon the bread crumb mixture onto each artichoke, then roast for 15 minutes, or until the bread crumbs are golden.
Serve hot or at room temperature.
Makes four to six side-dish servings.
*Fruit and vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them -- agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.