About Artichokes

May 1, 2012

About Artichokes

The globe artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) is a perennial thistle believed to have originated in Southern Europe around the Mediterranean. It is a spectacular plant that grows up to 6 feet tall, with arching, deeply lobed, silvery-green leaves up to 3 feet long. Its purple flowers develop from a large edible bud that measures 3-6 inches in diameter and features numerous fibrous triangular scales ranging from green to purple. The edible portion of the buds consists primarily of the fleshy lower portions of the flower bracts and the base, known as the “heart”; the mass of immature florets in the center of the bud is called the “choke” or beard. These are inedible in older larger flowers.

It seems that the artichoke was mostly developed in Sicily, Italy: there is mention of the plant in Greek and Roman literature as far back as 77 AD. Artichokes were also cultivated by the North African Moors in Spain around 800 AD. The Spanish settlers brought artichokes to California in the 1600’s.  However, artichokes did not become popular in California until the 1920’s.

Castroville, California, and the artichoke really made it on the map when Marilyn Monroe was crowned Artichoke Queen in 1948.  Eighty percent of all artichokes grown commercially in the U.S. are grown in Castroville.  Castroville may call itself “the artichoke capital of the world” but Italy is by far the largest producer of artichokes (it produces about 10 times more artichokes than the U.S.).

Prepping artichokes:

The goal here is to whittle the vegetable down to its completely edible core.  Slice off the top third to half of the artichoke with a serrated knife, peel away many layers of outer leaves until you reach the tender pale almost yellow center section; pare away any remaining green bits around the base, quarter them lengthwise, and then scrape out the tiny “choke” or prickly center.  If they are young enough, the choke may not have to be removed.  Rubbing them with lemon as you work, and/or dropping the finished pieces in lemon water will reduce browning.  Prepared as such, then sliced thinly, slowly braised in butter and lemon, topped with a bit of parmesan and run briefly under the broiler, and finally served over toast or grilled bread, they make a delicious special springtime bruschetta.

Some artichoke facts:

– Artichokes are low in calories and fat (if you leave out all the butter you dip then into), and they are rich source of dietary fiber.

– They have a cholesterol reduction action

– They are rich in folic acid, B-complex vitamins and vitamin K

– They are rich in vitamin C, but only when they are fresh (not the canned ones)

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