Saturday, May 10, 2008


The artichoke is a member of a small thistle family that contains only one other cultivated species, the cardoon, and some believe that the artichoke is a cultivated version of the cardoon. Wild versions are found abundantly in the Mediterranean and to a lesser extent in the United States. The Jerusalem artichoke, which is not a true artichoke, is not related to either one.

A small, stubby fruit knife is used to cut artichokes from the stalks by hand, and then they are flung into large backpacks slung over the pickers' shoulders. Ideally, artichokes are picked before their leaves, or bracts, begin to separate and with a stem end about 3 to 4 inches long.

The artichoke looks impenetrable and intimidating, as does a pineapple, but unlike a pineapple, the meat of the artichoke is harder to find-and there's a lot less of it. Time spent cleaning and paring artichokes down before you cook them means you won't have to eat around those inedible parts after you cook them.

Italy is the largest artichoke-producing nation, followed by Spain (where most artichokes are canned), France, Argentina, Egypt, and the United States. The central coast of California is an ideal climate for an almost constant supply of artichokes, with its cool summers, mild winters, high humidity, and lower evening temperatures. California produces virtually 100 percent of America's artichoke crop, and consumes about half of that as well.

Selection & Storage
Artichokes can range in size from small or baby artichokes-2 or 3 ounces each-to jumbo artichokes that can weigh as much as twenty ounces each. Artichokes should be firm, compact, and heavy for their size, and have an even green color in the spring and summer. In late summer and fall, artichoke leaves tend to be flared rather than tightly closed, and may show some frost damage in the form of some light bronze/brown coloring on the outer leaves in the fall and winter. Artichokes that exhibit this "winter kiss" are considered to have superior flavor. Give them a squeeze, and if they squeak, you know they are fresh.

Baby artichokes can range in size from a small walnut to a large goose egg. Size is not an indication of age or quality, so use the same criteria to select baby artichokes as with the larger varieties.

Artichokes dehydrate rapidly so as soon as you get home, put them in plastic bags with a little sprinkle of water (not too much water or the artichokes will get moldy,) and store them in the vegetable bin of the refrigerator.

Refresh an artichoke that looks a little dehydrated by cutting the brown part off the bottom of the stem, and putting the artichoke in a bowl of water. Cooked or raw artichokes will keep about a week in the high-humidity bin of your refrigerator.

Artichokes may be the most arduous of vegetables to prepare, depending on what you want to do with them and your level of patience. The simplest way is to lop off the stem so the artichoke sits upright, and then cut an inch or so off the top. You can then boil, steam, or microwave them, and then do the rest of the work by eating around the inedible parts. Broccoli stems and artichoke stems are often needlessly discarded. Peel and steam them with the rest of the artichoke, and then they can be eaten as is or chopped and put into stuffing to go inside prepared artichokes.

Prepare artichokes for stuffing by removing the stem as explained above, and then trim ½ inch or so from the tops of the outer leaves using scissors. This will eliminate the prickly needles that protrude from the tops of the leaves, and give a more attractive look. Cook using your method of choice. Pull back the leaves to uncover the inedible center portion, and scrape out the very inner leaves (called the cone) and the fuzzy choke. (This can be done while the artichoke is raw, but it is more difficult that way.)

Stuff the center of the cooked artichokes with breadcrumbs or sausage, and put some stuffing in between the leaves as well and bake. Steamed or boiled artichokes are delicious served cold when stuffed with a shrimp or crab salad.

Artichokes need to be completely edible to use for deep frying, or salads. Do this by removing the very bottom leaves, and slicing ½ inch off the bottom of the stem. Hold the artichoke in one hand with the thumb positioned on the bottom portion of each leaf, and bend back each leaf until it snaps naturally. Tear off the top part. As you get closer to the center of the artichoke, only pale green and yellow inner portions will show and the edible portion of each leaf will be larger. Remove anything that looks tough from the bottom portion of the artichoke, and taste if you're not sure. Trim any dark green portions, particularly from the bottom, with a sharp knife. Rub cut portions with a cut lemon to prevent discoloration. Halve the artichoke lengthwise and remove the inner cone and choke with a spoon. It is now ready to be used as is, cut it into quarters, or thinly sliced.

Baby artichokes require less preparation, because most don't have a fuzzy choke, and have fewer outer leaves to remove to get to the pale green and yellow inner portion. Use the same procedure as with large artichokes, and then leave whole, halve, or quarter for whatever type of dish you prefer.

I've always cooked artichokes in a fairly large pot of highly seasoned water, but recently I've found that they can be nicely steamed, upside down, in an inch of boiling water, without the use of a steaming rack.
Mayonnaise and hollandaise sauces, or variations of either, have been mainstays as artichoke dips, as well as vinaigrettes. Use light or fat free yogurt and mayonnaise mixed half, and half, for a reduced calorie sauce.

Artichoke Etiquette
Do you dread being served artichokes because you never learned how to eat them? Then the following tips are for you.

It is perfectly OK to pluck and eat artichoke leaves with your fingers; utensils are not necessary.

To eat the leaves, pull off a leaf by grabbing the pointed end. The wider end is a thin layer of edible flesh. Put about half of the wider, edible end of the leaf into your mouth and scrape off the flesh with your teeth. Repeat with each remaining leaf. The edible portion of the leaf becomes larger as you get closer to the center of the artichoke.

The leaves will become almost white with purple tips just before you get to the very center. Be careful of these leaves because their ends are prickly.

If the fuzzy patch/choke guarding the heart of the artichoke (considered the best part) hasn't been removed, scrape it off with a spoon or cut the heart away from it with a butter knife.

To eat with a dip such as a vinaigrette or mayonnaise, put a small part of the edible portion of the leaf in the dip and scrape as directed above. Don't overdo the dip or you won't taste the artichoke.