After all the trouble you go to, you get about as much actual ‘food’ out of eating an artichoke as you would from licking 30 or 40 postage stamps.
– Miss Piggy
Etymology: From the Arabic al’qarshuf
Area of Origin: Sicily and Granada, Spain
All right, we’ll admit it. While artichokes have been grown and eaten for at least one thousand years, they are not necessarily the easiest ingredient to love. These delectable vegetables put up barriers to hinder our penetration – sharp spikes on their petals and a lethal fuzzy barrier over their hearts. They take eons to cook, and even when they are done, consumption is a slow and sometimes frustrating process. And if you plan to use only the hearts, trimming each vegetable down to its root can be downright depressing. Despite all of these obstacles, however, eating artichokes is well worth the effort; this is just one of those times that slower is better. Eating an artichoke is not just about sustenance, it’s about the experience: The act of eating whole artichokes can be playful, thoughtful or sensual, while preparing the hearts shows great care and attention to detail. So have patience, slow down and enjoy every morsel of this strange little edible flower; that’s right, flower. The only edible member of the thistle family, artichokes are botanically characterized as flowers. In fact, if artichokes are left unpicked, they will transform into beautiful violet-colored blossoms.
Artichokes are a traditional ingredient in Spanish, Italian, and French cuisine. The original artichokes were first cultivated by Arab societies in Sicily and Granada, Spain at least as early as 800 A.D. Only in the 15th Century did they begin to spread throughout Italy and then France. Catherine de Medici (whom some claim introduced fine cuisine to France) is also credited with introducing the artichoke to the French Court of her husband, King Henry II. Artichokes were quite popular in those days, and a number of benefits were ascribed to their consumption; most interestingly, artichokes were said to be an aphrodisiac. Though the artichoke is undoubtedly a sexy vegetable, scientists have not yet been able to substantiate this claim.
What is scientific fact, however, is that the artichoke contains natural tannins and an organic acid called cynarin. Cynarin can have an unpredictable effect on the palate. Consequently, eating an artichoke can change the way that other tastes are perceived – sometimes they will seem sweeter, sometimes more bitter. For this reason, It is a common misconception that artichokes should not be paired with wine. While they present a pairing challenge, artichokes can certainly make happy marriages with a variety of wines. (For more information on pairing wines with artichokes, listen to Food Philosophy #33: Tasting Wine with the Senses.
The aptly named Green Globe is usually quite round and similar in color to green asparagus, though, during the winter months the base of the leaves may be purple. It is available all year and often has sharp spines on its outermost leaves. The vast majority of commercially grown artichokes in the United States are Green Globes.
Unlike other “baby” vegetables, which are picked young, artichoke size is determined by location on the branch. Artichokes located in low spots on the branch are shaded by leaves and other flowers, so their growth is stunted. The flavor is just as developed as large artichokes, but these minis are often entirely edible, with no thorns or fuzzy “chokes.” They are especially delicious fried and served as antipasti or steamed and tossed with pasta.
Fiesole, Lyon and Big Heart varieties may also be available at some grocery stores and farmers markets. The Fiesole Artichoke is purplish-red all over. Lyon Artichokes are extremely similar in appearance and taste to Green Globes. Big Hearts were specially developed in California to yield a larger heart and thicker leaves; these trademarked ‘chokes are still fairly difficult to find in most of the country.
Note: Jerusalem artichokes are not actually artichokes; rather, they are a type of sunflower, and are often referred to as sunchokes. It is thought that the “artichoke” part of the name comes from the taste of this little tuber.
See Chef Mark’s recipe for the perfectly steamed artichoke!
Dossier by China Millman