This stretch along Highway 1 is in the heart of agriculture country. Aside from the annual event, this sleepy farming town does not appear to have a lot going on, that being said, if you had a hankering for food featuring artichokes, or some incredibly tasty Mexican, this place is certainly worth the quick detour off of Highway 1. We had fun walking down main street checking out the mercado (market) and a meat market complete with a tacqueria in the back along with a surprisingly substantial Mexican centric grocery with a wonderful array of dried chilies and sauces. Surprisingly, only because it billed itself as a meat market, but you knew from the stand with the fresh juices going in that there was more here than meets the eye.
I’m not sure when and if you’ve discovered artichokes, I hope you have, because if not, let me tell you – you are in for a treat. If you’ve had them in the canned form, I don’t count that as having truly savored this bounty. Growing up, I’d seen the fresh artichokes rather woefully displayed in the produce section of the Midwest grocery stores – brown semi-dessicated leaves accompanied with the arresting price of about $4 per ‘choke that frankly made me choke. I knew these samples were not up to the standards I sensed these exotic beauties had to offer, so I bided my time. I knew what they were but had no idea of what was in store for me. I also must confess that having been pricked by a rather woeful specimen’s thorns, I found this veggie a bit the intimidating. My introduction came when I was dating Mr. Oyster.
When Mr. Oyster learned I had never had stuffed artichokes, he was aghast and immediately set out to right what he considered a situation that was very, very wrong. He requested his mother send her stuff artichoke recipe and cooked me up a steaming plate of delicious artichokes. Bliss! Besides being incredibly fun to eat – pulling the leaves through your teeth to scrap off the savory stuffing and “meat” digging out the hidden, tender and succulent heart and drinking some milk to find it unexpectedly sweet, it was just darn tasty. That synched it, Mr. Oyster was the one! They have it all wrong, its the woman who must be wooed through her stomach – and oh was I wooed.
I set out to learn to make stuffed artichokes and try my hand at as many of the other tasty treatments of this vegetable as possible. What a culinary breakthrough!
Mysterious Beautiful Orb
History and Anatomy
The exact origin of artichokes is unknown, but consensus that a good place to start is North Africa, where they are still found in the wild. From there, traders appeared to have spread them to Europe, and America received them in a two pronged approach – from the French in Louisiana territories and along with the missions, the Spanish brought this bounty to California.
As might be suspected, there was some initial resistance to eating the artichoke, phases like Johann Goethe stated “only the pheasants eat thistle” or Pliny the Elder (23–79 A.D.), calling artichokes “one of the earth’s monstrosities.” Actually, he went a bit further “thus we turn into a corrupt feast the earth’s monstrosities those which even the animals instinctively avoid.” Ouch! Following the “do I do, not as I say” motto the wealthy Romans of the period enjoyed artichokes prepared in honey and vinegar, or seasoned with cumin.
Several varieties of artichokes have been cultivated, and as might be suspected each has their own unique attributes. The artichoke itself is actually a flower but and is a member of the lettuce family – notice the resemblance? Neither did I. They are also related to salsify and sun chokes – ah this likeness I can see. The artichoke can be broken down into four basic parts
- leaves – the outer part of the bud, they are what you see when you look at a raw artichoke. They are for the most part edible, the eater pulls a leaf through their teeth to scrape off the meaty portion, the fibrous remains are discarded.
- choke -the hairy part of the bud that is revealed after all the leaves are eaten, this part is aptly named because it will tickle your throat and choke you if you neglect scraping it off in a frenzy to eat the heart.
- heart – the prize – the tender flavorful center of the artichoke, it makes all the work to discover it worthwhile.
- stem – the part that comes out of the base of the artichoke – this part is frequently cut off, but for a limited portion it may be edible and is very tasty – its an extension of the hear.
According to Harold McGee, those smaller artichokes commonly found in glass jars are not from the main stalk (like the beauty in the picture) but a side stalk and closer to the ground. These buds grow more slowly so when they are immature there is little if any choke to contend with.
Further hints from the name
Artichoke’s various names in European languages can be traced back to Arabic word al’qarshuf 0r al-kharshof. The cardoon, a variant of the same species, is native to the South Mediterranean. Artichokes were cultivated in Sicily during the Greek occupation, and called, in Greek kaktos. Around 800 AD, North African Moors cultivated artichokes around Granada, Spain, and the Saracens are associated with artichokes in Sicily, giving rise to the theory that this Arabic influence is why the name did not come from the Latin, “cynara.”
Today, artichoke cultivation is concentrated in the countries around the Mediterranean basin, with the main producers in Italy, Spain, and France. In the United States, California is responsible for about all of the crops, with about 80% from Monterey County – specifically, Castroville.
Oyster’s Entirely Random Artichoke Facts
Milk tastes incredibly sweet after you consume fresh artichokes. Seriously, have a glass of cow juice with your ‘choke – its amazing. Artichokes have copious amounts of phenolic substances, and one of these compounds, cynarcin makes foods consumed after eating artichokes taste sweeter. Because of this affect, artichokes are thought to be inappropriate for fine wine.
The stem of the fresh artichoke is an extension of the heart, while it can get very tough and fiberous – if its still fresh this part will offer up the tasty lushiousness that an artichoke heart has to offer, so do not cut off willy nilly – you may be missing out! I usually cut the stem off at the base, so the artichoke can stand up right in the steamer and then find the spot where the stem starts to get woody – I discard the woody section and add the “good” portion of the stem to the steamer.
If you add a bay leaf to the water used to steam artichokes, it changes the artichoke’ flavor, adding an interesting level of complexity. I’ve gotten the results with both fresh and dried bay leaves, but it is much more pronounced with fresh bay leaves.
Here’s why I am a poor recipe developer, I always go by what’s at hand and look and taste, and have never measured out a recipe. Artichoke stuffing reminds me of Salad Olivier – its global, delicous and takes advantage of available ingredients.
Artichoke stuffing fall into a few camps –
soft cheese and spices
My last batch was simply some homemade smoked ricotta with some minced green garlic, a bit of olive oil, and salt and pepper. Very tasty – I’d make it again and maybe add a few dried peppers to give it a bit of heat. Another batch I made had some Persian flavors, I used ricotta again and a bit of feta, sumac, dried mint, lemon juice, pepper flakes and a bit of salt and pepper.
egg with spices and bread crumbs
whip an egg through in spices – rosemary, basil, maybe some mustard. The egg as it cooks adheres to the leaves with a yummy flavorful coating.
bread crumbs and spices
bread crumbs – I’m partial to panko crumbs for no particular reason. Spices, fresh or dried. I cannot say one is better than the other, but they taste entirely different. Add some mustard, olive oil, garlic, onions, capers, even a bit of anchovies or anchovy paste is good. I sometimes add a few a few dashes of hot sauce, soy sauce, and or Worcestershire sauce. I also like to add some Parmesan or similar cheese, that goes well with the spices. I can’t forget to add that preserved lemon and harissa are also good ingredients to throw into the mix.
The consistency is damp crumbs, not swimming in olive oil. The lovely olive oil will just be wasted as oil dribbles from the artichokes during the steaming process. In my long winded way, I am trying to say that not following a recipe and experimenting has led to many a delicious stuffed ‘choke.
Prepping Artichoke for Stuffing
Chop of the stem at the base, if required taking care not to cut into the artichoke itself. If you do, you may be cutting into the heart and that’s the prized part of the choke.
Trim of the top part of the artichoke, say about 1/2 inch – I’ve always found this easiest with a heavy, weighted knife.
With a kitchen shears, trim the tips of the leaves off that have that thorn, just work your way around the artichoke.
With your hands work the leaves, feathering them out so that voids or pockets are created to contain the stuffing.
Add the stuffing between the leaves trying to work them down into the crevices. If you leave the stuffing on top, it may fall into the crannies, but it may also fall off the sides, and believe me you want all your stuffing!
Place the artichokes in the steamer taking care not to loose their precious stuffing and forget about them for about an hour. To check for doneness, try tugging on a leaf, if it comes off with little resistance its ready.
Other Artichokes Ideas
Freshly steamed articokes sans stuffing are also good with dips, a personal favorite is the classic aïoli. In addition to the aïoli, I’ve also used hummus and salsa, and they’ve both been equally delicious.
Grilled or smoked artichokes are delicious with some dip on the side.
Pizza – in Italy, artichoke hearts in oil are typically spring vegetable on the ‘Four Seasons’ pizza (with olives for summer, mushrooms for autumn and prosciutto for winter).
In Spain, the more tender younger and smaller artichokes are sprinkled with olive oil and left in residual hot ashes of a barbecue. Alternatively they are sauteed in olive oil with garlic, with rice as a paella or sauteed and combined with eggs in a tortilla (frittata).
Artichoke can also be prepared as a tea and as an Italian bitter called Cynar, the name a a nod to its Latin roots.
A few good artichoke references:
Simply Recipe – Great pictures on cutting and steaming an artichoke.
SF Gate – ideas about cooking with artichokes
Saveur – several good recipes for artichokes