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What I want to know is, who was the first person to eat an artichoke, and why? Ponder the artichoke and you too may wonder this same thing. The artichoke is a member of the thistle family (a sub-group of the sunflowers), and is aptly named. The center of this food is the “choke”, and can indeed choke you, but that is not how it got it’s name-more on that in a moment. This “vegetable” is actually the immature flower bud, and the choke is the future flower, which turns a lovely violet color. The part we eat, the “leaves” and the “heart” are actually the bract and the top of the stem. The choke, along with the sharp tips on the ends of the “leaves” makes for a formidable foodstuff.

The early history of artichokes is cloaked in time and myth. Some things are known, though. The myth is that Zeus saw a lovely human woman named Cynar, and seduced her, and then took her to Mt. Olympus. When he heard she had been visiting home he became so enraged he hurled her to earth and turned her into the thistle we now eat.  So the botanical name is Cynara scolymus, but where did the other name come from? Although the artichoke was known to have been eaten by Greeks as far back as 2 to 3 centuries BC, it is believed their roots are in North Africa, where they were developed and then spread with the Arabic conquests. The Saracens, a particularly fierce tribe, were so associated with this food that a derivative of their name for it is still used. Al-qarshuf (thorn of the ground) and ardi-shoki (little cardoon-to which it is related) are both Arabic names for it-there is some Italian in the mixing here-that finally yields artichoke.

They were grown around Naples mid-ninth century. Catherine de Medici scandalized the French court after marrying Henry the Second by publicly eating them (a lot of them). They were a man’s food as they were said to “provoke Venus”-meaning they were a powerful aphrodisiac. They appear elsewhere in history- there is a recipe for them in one of Martha Washington’s cookbooks, and Goethe mentions them as well. Fast forward to modern times. Italian immigrants, missing this bit of the old country, start growing them in and around Half-Moon Bay at the turn of the century (1900s). They become a big money crop, so big that the Mafia gets into them in New York! In 1922, Andrew Molera (of State Beach/Park fame) leases land to more Italian immigrants for growing ‘chokes in the Salinas area, realizing he will make more money than he was on sugar beets. This is the start of this area’s claim to being the Artichoke Capital, which is true for the most part. California grows 100% of the commercial crop, with Castroville being at the center. And yes, it’s true- in 1948, the first Artichoke Queen was a young woman named Norma Ray Baker, soon to be known as Marilyn Monroe.

You see the fields as you drive through the area. The plants are a dull silvery green, three to four feet high and roughly six feet in diameter with spiky leaves. Artichokes are a perennial, with some fields kept in production from five to ten years.  Between crops, the plant is cut back below the surface to encourage budding.  The peaks for artichokes are March through May (when the Artichoke Festival hits) and around October. I feel they are a bit sweeter, like Brussels sprouts, after there has been some very cold weather. After really cold weather or frost you will sometimes see ‘chokes that have a blistered or rusty appearance. These are called “winter kissed” by the Artichoke Advisory Board, and I look for these for their flavor. I think the abuse increases the flavor, and the ugly stuff all cooks off or is trimmed away anyhow. The plant produces three sizes of bud-the big ones are from the top central stem, with the medium ones from lower down. The little ones, which are not really “babies”, are from the bottom, shaded part of the plant.  Although there are some fifty varieties grown worldwide, commercially grown ‘chokes are all of the Green Globe variety. Although artichokes can take some work to prepare any other way than steamed, they pay big dividends in flavor and health. One medium ‘choke –only 25 calories-yields 4gm of protein, 6gm of dietary fiber, and are rich in calcium, folacin (38% of the RDA for women), magnesium, iron, potassium, and vitamins A and C. They are good for the liver, too. As to flavor, there really is nothing else that tastes like an artichoke.

Artichoke Tips

  • Artichokes discolor rapidly upon cutting. To prevent oxidation rub the cut with lemon juice, or submerge the ‘choke in acidulated water. Your knife will discolor as well, especially if it is carbon steel. Wash the knife right away (use Comet and a cork to scrub carbon steel blades) after finishing with the artichokes. If you use the knife unwashed on other things the bitter flavor of the raw artichoke will transfer to whatever you are cutting.
  • Raw artichokes will leave a bitterness on your hands that easily transfers, and can remain on your hands a long time. Wash hands well with plenty of soap.
  • Stems are frequently edible. Peel the stem with a knife and then cut off a little piece of it to taste. If it is not bitter it will taste just like the heart, of which it is an extension.
  • Artichokes require trimming, and lots of it. Do not skimp or you can wind up with bitter, tough, ill-cooked artichokes. Not only that, if you miss the thorns on the bract tips, it hurts!
  • NEVER skimp on scraping out the choke. Check to make sure you got it all. They are really unpleasant and the effects of eating some can last days. I say this from experience, which is why you will never catch me eating fried artichokes at roadside stands…
  • Speaking of trimming, this is one of the few times I recommend a cheap serrated knife. Use it for trimming the bottom two-thirds off the large artichokes. Kitchen shears work also. If you use a kitchen knife, use one that has a thick firm blade that is sharp, and that you will soon be getting sharpened again. A short sharp paring knife is good for the rest of the work.
  • The stems can sometimes be snapped off.
  • Artichokes contain cynarin. This compound is bitter, and has the unique characteristic of making the foods you eat after the artichoke taste sweet. This tends to mess with the taste of the wine that accompanies dinner. Many people say avoid wine altogether, but the consensus is to drink a high acid wine such as a Chenin Blanc or brut sparkler with artichokes.
  • When boiling artichokes, if the meal will have wine with it, I use wine in the liquid to bridge the wine/’choke gap. I also cover the artichokes with a cloth to keep them in the liquid, or use a smaller pot top to keep them submerged.
  • If after trimming big ‘chokes for stuffing or hearts, you have lots of meaty leaves left, steam them until just done and then cool them. You can eat them as is or scrape them with a spoon to get the “meat” off to use as a ravioli stuffing or mix into cream for a pasta sauce.
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