A Diamond in the Rough
by Susan Wesenhagen
A member of the thistle family, the thorny armour of the artichoke can be intimidating, but the pleasures of the rewards that lie beneath - the meaty leaves and tender hearts - are a feast worth battling for.
Artichokes have been eaten for thousands of years and are a native plant of the Mediterranean region. The ancient Greeks credited artichoke consumption with successfully producing male heirs and the Romans praised artichokes for their medicinal attributes.
Their popularity in Europe grew during the 1500's and they were exported to the new world where they were grown in many areas. Today, the central coast of California is the primary growing region where the moderate climate - cool summers and mild winters - provides an ideal growing environment.
As in ancient times, artichokes still have a high perceived value and a certain mystique continues to surround this spiny vegetable. It's a phenomenon that chefs can capitalize on.
The artichoke is also very versatile - it can be served hot or cold, and can be used in appetizers, salads, side dishes and entreés. Serve up baby artichokes in salads and stir frys, or sauté with chicken and serve over fettuccine. Stuff whole artichokes with cous cous or bake the tender leaves into a casserole, or serve whole steamed artichokes with a variety of dipping sauces. The Jewel in the Crown - the tender heart of the artichoke, can be added to stews and soups, used as an appetizer or pizza topping.
Choosing a fresh artichoke can be tricky - look for heavy (weighty) artichokes that are a dark green colour with tight leaves. Artichokes that are turning brown may be old. However, being "winter- kissed" (having experienced a frost) can cause artichoke tips to brown, and is not necessarily an indication of a lack of freshness. And, having experienced a frost is not all bad - though colder temperatures will stop an artichoke from growing it will often at the same time help to develop the meat on the interior of the leaves.
Whole fresh artichokes should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight plastic bag and should not be washed before storing. They will remain fresh for about a week to 10 days.
Of course many recipes can be prepared using canned artichokes which are shelf stable until opened. Using canned artichokes also reduces prep time and allows you to offer the unique nutty taste of the artichoke heart or the convenience of a quartered artichoke without all the work.
According to the California Artichoke Advisory Board the artichoke is not only fun to eat, it's also good for you. One 12-ounce (300g) artichoke is a good source of vitamin C, folate and potassium. It's low in sodium, fat-free and a dieter's delight at only 25 calories.
The next time you're looking for a unique sidedish or flavourful ingredient consider the artichoke - nature's diamond in the rough. ¨
Basic Preparation - Steam, Boil or Microwave
Wash artichokes under cold running water.
Pull off lower petals which are small or discoloured.
Cut stems close to base. (Use stainless knives to prevent discolouration.)
Cut off top quarter and tips of petals, if desired. (Generally, some people like the look of clipped petals, but it really isn't necessary to remove the thorns. They soften with cooking and pose no threat to diners.)
Plunge into acidified water to preserve colour. (One tablespoon vinegar or lemon juice per quart or litre of water.)
Optional: The trimmed artichoke stems are edible. Cut brown end about 1/2-inch (1 cm). Peel fibrous outer layer to reach tender green of stem. Stem may be steamed whole with the artichoke. Cut into rounds or julienne for salads or pastas.
Source: California Artichoke Advisory Board
How to Boil an Artichoke
Using a heavy pot with lid, bring acidified water to a boil and place artichokes in the pot (do not overfill). Simmer the artichokes for about 35 minutes. Artichokes are cooked when a leaf from the middle row of leaves can be removed easily. Iron and aluminum can cause an artichoke to turn blue or black so a stainless steel pot or glass pot is a must!
Delicious hot or cold, cooked chilled artichoke actually has more flavour than artichoke served warm.