How many of us contemplate artichokes? Not many I believe. Not a single recipe regarding serving whole artichokes ever made it into the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book. We American are small-time artichoke eaters. They have hardly become commonplace, yet seventy million pounds are raised in California annually. Individually, we eat ¾ of one annually. Every Italian eats 175 a year!
I can thank my oldest sister for introducing them to our family. In 1952, the year she had begun her teaching career in Pearsall, Texas, she brought home some artichokes. We viewed them with great suspicion — at first. Many years later, we had many memorable dinners discovering their wonderful flavor. I remember Jeanette enjoying artichokes. Each edible part, dipped in melted butter, caused her to smack her lips with delight. Some of us in the family were all in, like me. Eating them is an art requiring artichoke-specific techniques that aren’t exactly intuitive. Still, the savory flavor of artichoke flesh has a uniquely rich, almost creamy texture that leaves one wanting more.
The edible portion of the plant consists of its flower buds before they come into bloom. Once the buds bloom it is too late, and they become inedible. It is astonishing to think that they are related to thistles. It makes me wonder, who was the first to dive into what was hidden from view? Their origins are generally believed to be in Northern Africa, others think it was Sicily. They were first mentioned in Florence in 1466, where Filippo Strozzi, a wealthy banker, succeeded in growing them, but classical sources made mention of them long before the Romans.
Homer spoke of their cultivation in Sicily at the beginning of the classical period of the ancient Greeks. In Italy they had actually been considered a luxury from the times of the Romans; perhaps because they were considered one of the more efficacious aphrodisiacs. Like so many vegetables, they vanished during the Dark Ages only to reappear, introduced as newer, improved varieties. Perhaps this explains their growing acceptance at that time, or possibly they had discovered the healthy qualities of the vegetable. Artichokes contain large amounts of potassium and sodium salt, things excellent for the cardiovascular system. In other words, things that get the blood flowing. They also have the highest level of antioxidants of any vegetable.
It was Le Roy Ladurie’s book Les Paysans de Languedoc, that documented the spread of artichoke cultivation in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. They appeared as a new arrival, but it was the Dutch, not the French, who introduced artichokes to England, where they grew in Henry VIII‘s garden at Newhall in 1530. They were taken to the United States in the 19th century — to Louisiana by French immigrants and much earlier, to California by Spaniards. It is quite possible that some of our German immigrants knew of them. Never underestimate the American Indians, however, for it seems Lewis and Clark discovered native people enjoying the root of an edible thistle found growing in western North America. Even the weed we know as Milk Thistle has edible roots.
How and when should we eat an artichoke is the burning question. A handsome boiled artichoke all by itself can be served as an appetizer, or as a separate vegetable course in place of a salad. Of course, the entire exterior as well as the fuzzy choke and tiny inner leaves are inedible. But what a presentation they make! Only the heart, which lies deep at its center, and the bottom portions of those inner leaves become meaty and tender when cooked. Many recipes recommend removing the spines to allow one to enjoy the search for the treasure beneath them, one by one.
The very young, wholly edible buds can be eaten, but when they become tough, only those with a strong set of front teeth can pick them off a cooked head one by one and dip them in melted butter. It is an experience to enjoy unlike any other eating ritual. When all the leaves are gone, a bristly structure, the inedible ‘choke’ is revealed. This is carefully cut away to reveal the ‘heart’ of the choke which is a delight to devour. There’s nothing like it!
Artichokes can be prepared in many ways. Of course they are available canned, but that takes all the entertainment out of a meal. Served whole, with all their forbidding armor, they make for an entertaining ritual for dinner guests. Figure one per person and cook them whole. They do not require much prepping. Steaming has proven to be the best way, if boiling, don’t fret if parts of the artichokes are higher than the water. It is their bases that need to be under water. Nestle them upright and allow them to cool for a quarter hour before serving. The journey to their dense, nutty heart is by necessity a leisurely one.
There are two varieties of artichokes: the globe — plump, green, and thick-leaved; and the Jerusalem, which resembles a firm but knotted potato. One or the other is available all year. If you are not going to cook an artichoke immediately, shave ¼ inch of their stems, and wrap them in slightly dampened paper towels. Then store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator, where they will keep perfectly for several days. Like flowers, artichokes need moisture so plan on serving them soon.
1 lemon, cut in half
4 medium artichokes (8-10 oz each)
3 tbsp salt
After trimming the stems, cut off the tips of their leaves and then slice about ¾” off of the top.
Place in boiling salted water.
Boil for 35-45 minutes or until their base is tender and the outer leaves are easy to pull off.
Drain upside down before serving.
Guests may need to be cautioned on how to consume and enjoy the delights that awaits them.”
Have melted butter served in individual bowls available for dipping.
Provide lemon slices and salt for guests to season to their liking.