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This Glorious Bud – The Artichoke

Artichoke on the plantThe artichoke
of delicate heart
erect
in its battle-dress, builds
its minimal cupola;
keeps
stark
in its scallop of
scales.

So begins Pablo Neruda’s Ode To an Artichoke. One of the more unusual looking vegetables — and one of the few flowers we consider to be “vegetable” — it stirs ones imagination with its tough green armor shielding a sweet, scrumptious heart, the “halcyon paste” Neruda mentions at the end of his ode. Or maybe you imagine it as the centerpiece for some S&M fetish party, doing a strip tease as you go for its heart.

A Sexy History

artichoke bloomingPerhaps that’s the reason why it was once considered too risqué for women. Back in the 16th Century, artichokes were thought to be aphrodisiac and reserved for men. Only a daring woman like Catherine de Medici would defy such conventions and openly eat artichokes (and tons of them, to boot!) Historians believe that it was this Catherine who introduced the artichoke to France when she married King Henry II. They are less sure about where the plant originated.

In Spain, they are called alcachofa, which may have come from the Arabic word al-qarshuf during the Moorish invasion. Of course, the Arabs could just as easily have gotten the artichoke from the Spanish. Or the Italians who call the thorny thistle, carciofa.

Tasty in So Many Ways

They sure do love their artichokes in the Mediterranean areas! Almost as much as I do. You can imagine my bliss when I was in Italy last year during their main artichoke season. Big, beautiful artichokes. Tiny egg-shaped baby artichokes. Green and purple ones piled on tables and baskets at farmers’ markets. In the Old Jewish section of Rome, there are artichoke restaurants — places that specialize in carciofi alla giudea, literally “Jewish-style artichokes.” When I went to one of the restaurants, my passion got the better of me and I am ashamed to admit, I made an entire meal out of different artichoke dishes. We started with an artichoke salad — thinly shaved raw baby artichokes and arugula with generous shavings of Parmesan cheese — then had a Roman-style stewed artichoke dish, finishing with the famous carciofi alla guide, a large, spiny, deep-fried whole artichoke. They deep fry the globe, smash it a bit to open up the flower. It’s golden and aromatic, nutty and crunchy. You eat the whole thing. At least, I think you’re supposed to. (Why am I suddenly imagining the waiters looking at my empty plate like waiters here would look at an empty plate after someone had lobster?)

artichokes marketBack in California, we are also Artichoke Central — if not for the world, then at least for the United States. Although the Central Coast is not as famous as Castroville for its artichokes, we also have the perfect Mediterranean climate that artichokes love and they grow just as easily and productively here. Our artichokes first came by way of Spanish settlers, while Louisiana got theirs from the French.

Maybe the French also brought their artichoke recipes with them. New Orleans restaurants regularly feature artichokes on their menus. Once in a while, I’ll see them in restaurants in California but they are usually served the way that most people have artichokes at home: steamed or boiled with leaves dipped in drawn butter (with or without lemon) or mayonnaise.

Expand Your Artichoke Repertoire

artichokes miniSimple, steamed artichokes are heavenly, but my love of this gnarly bud makes me try nearly every artichoke recipe I come across, including carciofi alla giudea which I can never seem to replicate. If you have access to baby artichokes, do try them raw, in a salad. Cut or peel away the tougher tips and outer leaves. They will discolor quickly so plunge them immediately into a bowl of lemon water. Then, slice them as thin as you can, lengthwise, back into the lemon water. (I’ve found that a mandoline can make them a bit too thin but that’s just my preference.) When you are ready, drain the slices, toss with fresh arugula and season with lemon and olive oil. Serve with shaved Parmesan cheese on top.

Recipe for Artichauts Provençal
The same sliced baby artichokes are terrific sautéed in olive oil and tossed with pasta, or in a risotto.

Many countries have stuffed artichokes, but here’s a recipe for stuffed artichokes from the Provence region of France:

artichaut dish

6-8 small artichokes
5 Tbs olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
2-3 carrots, diced
3/4 cup dry white wine or vermouth
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
salt, pepper

Cut off the tops of the artichokes, rub with lemon and set aside. Heat a large skillet, put in a couple of tablespoons of the olive oil and stir in the diced onions and carrots. Lay the artichokes over the onions and carrots, cut side up. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle more olive oil on the top. Cover the skillet and cook over medium heat for 10 – 15 minutes. Shake the pan occasionally. Then, add the white wine and simmer, uncovered, for another 5 minutes. Sprinkle garlic on top, add 1/3 cup of water and simmer, covered, on lower heat for another 15 minutes or so.

You can serve this dish now, if you want. To stuff the artichokes, scoop out the center leaves and choke to create a cavity for the stuffing. I’ve used meat-based stuffing (sausage and sage make a nice one) but they are fantastic with a simple bread crumb-parsley-oregano-garlic-olive oil stuffing. Arrange the stuffed artichokes in an oven-proof dish, cover with foil and heat in a moderate oven. Before serving, put them under the broiler to get the tops nice and crunchy.

Good and Good For You

At our ranch, we have several kinds of domesticated artichokes but also a field of wild artichokes. (Are they cardoons?) My neighbors think they are invasive weeds and have wanted me to eradicate them for years, but I try not to let them creep over to their side by picking the globes before they flower.

“You actually eat them?” one neighbor asked incredulously. “Don’t you get stabbed by all those long spines? Are they any good?”

Yes. Yes. And a resoundingly loud YESSSSS! They are fantastic. Just very labor-intensive and a bit dangerous with their spiny leaves.

artichokes growing

I use the nutty, firm hearts (which are not as moist as domesticated artichoke hearts) to make a delicious cream soup. You can do this with regular artichokes, too. Sauté some onion, celery and garlic in butter or olive oil, stir in the chopped up artichoke hearts and add chicken or vegetable stock, salt to taste. Puree in a blender. When you are ready to serve, stir in some heavy cream. It’s great hot or cold.

One last thing to mention. While the artichoke is loaded with nutrients and phytochemicals that prevent all sorts of health issues, one of the phytochemicals, cynarin, also stimulates the taste buds, making things taste sweet. Because of this, there are wine connoisseurs who will never have artichoke with good wine.

Whatever way you have your artichoke, feel fortunate to be in the land of these fresh and glorious buds and enjoy!

–Written by Carole Hisasue, photographer and food writer