April 23, 2017

There’s an Art to Growing – and Eating – the Prickly Artichoke

The artichoke presents a rather arresting picture in the garden.

Janine Pineo Photo | The artichoke presents a rather arresting picture in the garden.

• By Janine Pineo •

Artichokes are the lobsters of the garden.

Whoever figured out there was something edible in either one had to be a genius, because good eating isn’t the first thought that usually comes to mind when I see a lobster waving its claws and wiggling its many legs – although it is a close second – and it definitely wasn’t my original impression when I grew my first artichokes.

The image I had was more like I was being threatened by some prickly prehistoric plant.

Despite their arresting appearance of spiny, deeply toothed leaves, artichokes have been a favored vegetable for more than 2,000 years. The Greek philosopher (weren’t they all?) and naturalist Theophrastus mentions Cynara scolymus in writings during the fourth century B.C., saying “the head of Scolymus is most pleasant, being boyled or eaten raw, but chiefly when it is in flower.”

I was surprised to learn that the artichoke is actually the flower bud. I hadn’t given it much thought; I simply knew I was partial to artichoke hearts. Since most of what we eat for vegetables is the result of what happens after the flower is pollinated, I wrongly assumed the same held true for the artichoke.

Cardoon is thought to be the parent of the artichoke.

Janine Pineo Photo | Cardoon is thought to be the parent of the artichoke.

The other revelation is that this thistlelike plant isn’t a type of thistle. It is a member of the daisy family and a near relative to cardoon, Cynara cardunculus. In fact, it is believed that cardoon is the parent of the artichoke as we know it today. Artichokes were never a wild plant, only a cultivated one, and history places the genesis of the modern artichoke between A.D. 800 and 1500, probably in monastery gardens where they were grown as ornamentals and vegetables.

The evolution of the word artichoke maps its travels. The plant’s origins are thought to be from North Africa and its name from Arabic, al’qarshuf. Beginning around A.D. 800, the Moors began cultivating artichokes in Spain, where the name became alcarchofa, an Old Spanish word.

Another Arab group, the Saracens, is associated with the emergence of artichokes in Sicily, where the word mutated as it headed north through Italy until it became articiocco, a northern dialect word that is the source of the English variation.

Exactly when artichokes arrived on the shores of North America is a bit unclear. French explorer Samuel de Champlain said Indians were growing artichokes in 1695 in the Cape Cod area. Another date is 1806, when artichokes arrived with French settlers in the Louisiana Territory. Spaniards were the source of California’s original artichokes in the later 1800s.

Today, all of the nation’s commercial artichokes are grown in California, mostly in Monterey County. The reason the perennial plant thrives there is because of the temperate climate. Most plants remain in production for five to 10 years, growing about 6 feet in diameter and 3 or 4 feet tall. A healthy plant can produce 40 to 50 buds.

Those numbers make my first artichoke attempt look pathetic. I realize my northern climate can’t compete with that of California for prime artichoke production, but I do so like to try.

Two years ago, I purchased a couple of plants that produced a half-dozen little buds by summer’s end. Two were getting to a size that might have been edible, but I didn’t know whether they were OK to eat at that size.

This year I have two more plants, and I will attempt to eat the buds at any size if any grow. I have no fear after a visit to the California Artichoke Advisory Board’s Web site, artichokes.org.

Baby artichokes are completely edible. Remove the outer petals until you reach the petals that are half yellow and half green. Trim off the top of the cone where the green meets yellow (green is fibrous), then remove any remaining green from the base. Steam them whole, put them in a stir-fry or saute them.

If I get anything bigger than a baby artichoke, all I need to do is pull off any discolored leaves, trim the stem to the base, stand them in about 3 inches of boiling water and cook for 25 to 40 minutes until a petal near the center pulls free easily.

After draining them upside down, they can be served with melted butter.

I know how to eat the hearts, but how about those outer petals?

You can dip the petal in the butter first, or you can just avoid the extra calories and simply pull it through your teeth to remove the pulpy center.

It is strangely reminiscent of how I eat a lobster leg.

First published in the Bangor Daily News in June 2002.