Real Food Encyclopedia | Artichokes

Artichokes can instill fear into the hearts of home cooks, and it’s not too surprising. Their thorny leaves and rather diminutive fleshy hearts can make them seem like way too much work, for way too little reward. But have one bite of the Italian classic carciofi alla Giudia, and you’ll understand what the fuss is all about. And while there are ways to make the prep work of trimming the leaves and inner hearts of artichokes easier, you can also lean on baby artichokes, the more tender, less thorny siblings which don’t require as much work to enjoy.

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Fun Facts about Artichokes:

  • Demand was so high in the 1920s that farmers shipped artichokes by the boxcar to the East Coast, and the import business fell into the hands of mafia leaders like Ciro Terranova (aka the Artichoke King) who monopolized the supply and orchestrated a highly profitable artichoke racket.
  • On December 21, 1935, New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia — in an attempt to break up the artichoke racket — announced a city-wide ban on the popular vegetable. A week later, La Guardia lifted the ban after importers agreed to sell directly to retailers rather than through a mafia-controlled middleman.
  • Castroville, California is the hub for US artichoke production and the self-described artichoke capital of the world. Every May since 1959, Castroville has hosted an artichoke festival, complete with a parade, cook-offs and the crowning of an artichoke queen, the first of whom was one Norma Jean Baker, a young actress who would later find fame as Marilyn Monroe.
  • You can drink your artichokes, too. Cynar, an Italian artichoke liqueur, has been on the market since 1952.

What to Look for When Buying Artichokes

When you squeeze it, does your artichoke squeak? Good, that’s the one you want.  Look for tightly closed leaves, rather ones that are splayed open, particularly at the top. Some argue that fatter stems mean bigger (and meatier hearts), but that methodology only applies to large artichokes, where the base (and heart) is fully developed. Black/brown patches of discoloration on outer leaves is actually okay; it’s simply a symptom of frost damage, which although unattractive, is harmless.  In fact, some producers suggest these artichokes are potentially sweeter than their unblemished brethren.

Sustainability of Artichokes

Pesticides and Artichokes

The conventional artichoke is excluded from the Environmental Working Group Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, a list EWG created to single out produce with the highest loads of pesticide residues, which means it’s neither a model pesticide-free choice nor a major offender. But there’s a twist: As Deborah Madison writes in her book, “Vegetable Literacy,” artichokes “constitute a monocrop, and because they grow in a climate that is hospitable to all kinds of problematic creatures and conditions — moths, aphids and the like — artichokes tend to be heavily sprayed with pesticides.”

But that legacy is changing. Since 2000, all artichokes from Ocean Mist, reportedly the country’s largest commercial grower of artichokes, have been certified by NutriClean, a third party certification program for pesticide-free residue. Although not certified organic, Ocean Mist is transitioning from conventional to organic methods (including 350 acres of organic artichokes in operation), and now offers both conventional and organic artichokes.

Artichoke Seasonality

In California, artichokes are grown pretty much year round. Elsewhere in the country, the peak season is March through May, and then again to a lesser extent in early fall.

Artichokes and Geography

According to the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) Italy is the top producer of artichokes, followed by Egypt, Spain, Peru and Argentina.

In the U.S., virtually all commercially grown artichokes come from California, mostly the green “globe” variety. In recent years, smaller growers have been experimenting with cultivars that our friends in the Mediterranean have been enjoying for centuries. There’s a whole world of artichokes that that we’ve yet to see on this side of the pond.

Eating Artichokes

Storing Artichokes

Keep refrigerated in a loose-fitting paper or mesh-style produce bag to minimize moisture. Use within three to five days of purchase, the sooner the better/fresher.

Cooking Artichokes

Pro tip: Briefly soak artichokes in lukewarm water with a teaspoon of salt or vinegar to help draw out any trapped insects or dust. Make sure artichokes are completely covered in water, then gently pry open the leaves to coax out any lurking unwanted debris.

How you trim and prep an artichoke depends on how you like to eat it. For many, the only way to enjoy an artichoke is to cook it whole until tender all the way through, by boiling, steaming or baking. The goal is extracting the meat from within each leaf, most successfully done with the tugging force of your front teeth, usually with some kind of dipping sauce nearby. For this option, trim the tips of the outer leaves to make for a seamless (and painless!) extraction.

Whole artichokes can also be stuffed, often with seasoned bread crumbs, in between leaf layers. This is a somewhat messy but festive option.

If you’re after the heart, go for the smaller “baby” artichokes, which are typically free of the spikier leaves and are much easier to trim than their bigger boned siblings.

Size notwithstanding, if the heart and surrounding crown is your goal, you’ll need to trim a good half-inch off the top and peel away the darker leaves until you reach the lighter colored, more tender layers. Then slice the artichoke in half lengthwise (including the stem) and quickly spoon out the choke. Keep in mind that as soon as the inner workings are exposed to air, the artichoke begins to discolor, even more quickly than an apple. Place the trimmed artichoke in a bowl of lemon water to reduce this discoloration.

Trimming artichokes is a tedious task, often more time consuming than the actual cooking. Once trimmed, you can roast, sauté, braise or fry artichokes, toss them into pasta, added to frittatas or fold into pilaf. Deborah Madison notes that artichokes have many “good companions,” including: olive oil, butter, garlic (as well as aioli), parsley, Parmigiano-Reggiano, asparagus and leeks.

Preserving Artichokes

Artichokes can be frozen after cooking (but not raw). Boil in lemon water, to prevent discoloration, drain and freeze. Artichokes can also be pickled and preserved in olive oil.

Artichoke Nutrition

Just 64 calories, a medium artichoke contains a whopping 10 grams of fiber and more than three grams of protein, and is a respectable source of folate.

But the most compelling nutritional argument for eating artichokes? Antioxidants. A 2006 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that among “foods consumed in the United States” the artichoke is the fourth most antioxidant-rich food per serving, after blackberries, walnuts and strawberries. In fact, it’s the most phytonutrient-dense of all the vegetables studied — even virtuous broccoli and spinach don’t even come close.

Cynarin is one such phytonutrient found in the leaves of the artichoke plant and has been studied for its potential to lower blood cholesterol. It’s also been researched for its ability to stimulate the flow of bile from the liver and gallbladder, potentially as a treatment for gallstones.

Top photo by Twenty20/@WhitneyB.