All ‘Choked Up

Thistle Be Fun!Its artichoke season and I am so happy!  While driving along the Monterey Peninsula we saw signs at several restaurants and the ubiquitous roadside stands all claiming to serve delicious fried artichokes, french fried artichokes and artichokes in just about every form imaginable.  On our meandering journey along Highway 1, I made my husband detour to the tiny town of Castroville, California.  Why Castroville?  Castroville is to artichokes what Gilroy is to Garlic – ground zero!  Castroville calls itself “The Artichoke Center of  the World”.  Every May they celebrate this delicacy in all its forms, and as evidenced by some of the signs in town, that fondness is not limited to a few days in on month but is a continual devotion.  One sure way to tell you are in artichoke country is a quick peak at the prices.  We got a dozen globes for $1.  (No typo!)  Another quick test is to see if they make ice cream and cupcakes out of that special ingredient – check…and check!

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.

Pezzini roadside farm stop

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.

Good times a comin'

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

in the field

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. heart – the prize – the tender flavorful center of the artichoke, it makes all the work to discover it worthwhile.
  4. 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

serious business - "artichoke beauty"

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.

Artichoke Stuffing

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.

Castroville's finest

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

I sense a theme

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

a bitter brew

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.

What’s Cooking America

SF Gate – ideas about cooking with artichokes

Saveur – several good recipes for artichokes

Update me when site is updated

26 comments for “All ‘Choked Up

  1. April 19, 2010 at 7:48 PM

    Only ever tasted the canned stuff and like mostother canned veggies I am not a fan. I am sure it is great fresh.

  2. April 19, 2010 at 8:18 PM

    I remember when I young I disliked artichokes for a long time. Until one day, I had them stuffed when I realized that it wasn’t really all that bad. I guess it’s time to stock up on some chokes. :)

  3. April 19, 2010 at 10:18 PM

    You know the first time hubby and I drove through the west coast when we were visiting Napa, we saw these strange plants that had limbs if you call them that, reaching way out with this strange pointiness to them, with binoculars we saw a little closer- I realized it was artichokes, I was so excited, because I had never never seem the plants before. How funny when a food enthusiasts see the simplest things as we do and it rocks our world…

    I had only had steamed chokes, with garlic butter, but when I had my first stuffed one I knew life was going to only get better…

  4. April 20, 2010 at 3:39 AM

    I am not a real fan of fresh artichokes,..but I love them pickled, in olive oil etc and on pizza!

  5. April 20, 2010 at 5:06 AM

    I definitely needed the info on artichokes – I’ve never actually cooked with them but that’s about to change as I’ve got some at the store this week!

  6. April 20, 2010 at 6:35 AM

    I’ve never cooked artichokes and I’ve only had steamed artichokes once. Now I’m really interested in trying it! Great post as usual and so informative!

  7. April 20, 2010 at 8:51 AM

    This is great–I don’t cook fresh artichokes enough. I but the jarred pickled artichokes which I love for adding to pastas, etc. The idea of stuffing them with soft cheese and spices sounds wonderful.

  8. admin
    April 20, 2010 at 9:40 AM

    Wizzy – Gotta give the fresh stuff a try before you count it out. Its not that I totally dislike the canned variety but its like comparing powered chocolate milk to the kind you make from scratch.

    Jenn – Once you have the good stuff, there’s no looking back.

    Chef E – I’m with you, the first time I saw them growing in fields I was shocked that they grew like that, not sure what I was expecting but that was not it.

    Sophie – The options, thankfully are plentiful

    5Star – Can’t wait to see what you do with them – they are fun to cook with.

    Azita – You’ll have fun with the artichokes, can’t wait to hear how it goes.

    Lisa – the versatility of the artichokes is such that you never run out of good options.

  9. April 20, 2010 at 1:02 PM

    What timing! I’m about to cut into some fresh artichokes now. Unfortunately, our grocery store artichokes are of the expensive and traveled variety, but we’ve seen some at local farmers’ markets this year for the first time.

  10. April 20, 2010 at 1:09 PM

    You make them sounds so delicious!! i so got to get over my fear of preparing them! Great video tutorial and fillings! Going to have to try it!! lol

  11. April 20, 2010 at 1:42 PM

    This brought back such grand memories of my mother preparing artichokes – sometimes a la Greque, sometimes stuffed, sometimes with a simple dipping sauce. Such tasty treats! They remain probitively expensive in Minnesota!

  12. April 20, 2010 at 11:07 PM

    Who would’ve ever made the connection between artichokes and milk? That’s crazy!

  13. April 21, 2010 at 6:21 AM

    I love artichokes and always forget to buy them when they are in season! An interesting articles with great fact. I din’t know that things taste sweeter after having eaten artichokes…

    cheers,

    Rosa

  14. April 21, 2010 at 1:48 PM

    Your posts always make me want to move to California! I have to say that photo of the artichoke in the field was as intriguing to me as the first time I saw a pineapple plant. So unique. I honestly haven’t been eating artichokes for long and my journey with fresh artichokes is just beginning. Great post and wouldn’t you just love an artichoke themed kitchen. That would be very different around here. People tend to go with roosters. :)

  15. April 21, 2010 at 3:29 PM

    Wonderful to see the background about artichoke. They aren’t often in my menu…I need to explore more about them 😉

    All the best,

    Gera

  16. April 21, 2010 at 8:32 PM

    Good Article. I’ll be back for your next post…

  17. April 21, 2010 at 9:00 PM

    Thanks for the tip about the sweetness! I just can’t dig drinking milk; love all your recipes, it is very close to what we do we artichokes; did not know about Castroville and it is definitely worth the detour!
    I can’t think of a better way to start a meal than to eat an artichoke freshly steamed with an olive oil vinaigrette.

  18. April 21, 2010 at 9:39 PM

    My husband thinks artichokes are too much trouble to eat. Is he nuts?! But then again, that just leaves more for me. I grew up with them as a kid, and still love them dipped into Best Foods mayo just like I did way back when.

  19. tigerfish
    April 22, 2010 at 2:28 AM

    I am starting to miss artichoke now….I’m choking on my own tears now :(

    I tried fresh artichoke soup and artichoke bread in Duarte Tavern, Pescadero, CA before and they were so delicious.

  20. April 22, 2010 at 8:52 AM

    I love artichokes or alcachofas in spanish :) I didn’t cook them at home yet!!!!!Thanks for all the info!

  21. April 23, 2010 at 11:52 PM

    hi there I love artichoke so many ways to cook it so much fun !! cheers from Pierre de Paris

  22. admin
    April 25, 2010 at 5:41 PM

    Lisa – Hopefully you get to try the local version. Can’t wait to see what you do with them!

    Ruth – Please, if I can do it, you can do it! Besides, I must see what delicious concoction you come up with!

    Claudia – Sounds like you need a trip to CA so I can take you to some artichoke stops!

    Duo – You gotta try it, its a bit freaky at first, but fun!

    Rosa, you have to try drinking milk with them, or having chocolate immediately after.

    Taste of Beirut – If you do not like milk, try chocolate right after, milk is the most obvious taste difference but I think it applies to other foods.

    Lori – I think I’ll still to basic in my kitchen if the artichokes go out of style – kind of like the pineapple theme and the piggy theme. =) But I am sure roosters will always be hip!

    Gera – they are delicious, hopefully you can find them easily.

    Provo – Thanks!

    Carolyn – He’s nuts! More for you though! Never tried just mayo, but aioli is my usual dip – might need to shake it up a bit!

    Tigerfish – Ah! =) Duarte and Pescadero rocks! Love that place – have you tried the artichoke bread at the bakery? Holy cow!

    Erica – I can’t believe you’ve never cooked them, but then they are just as fun to eat!

    Pierre – Cheers! Thanks for stopping by!

  23. April 30, 2010 at 4:38 AM

    I don’t know what else to say but I’m seething with jealousy!

  24. May 5, 2010 at 1:57 AM

    Glad I am not the only one who takes detours to unlikely places just for vegetables or fruits. I read about how everything tastes sweeter after eating raw chokes, next time I will try drinking milk with it as you suggest.

  25. May 8, 2010 at 5:20 PM

    I’m not great at measuring recipes either, which is why there is a dearth of recipes by me on my blog. I love these artichokes! And when I lived in the bay area, and had a garden, the leaves were my favorite items to compost because the fiber aerated the soil well. My favorite way to prepare artichokes is to saute in olive oil, minced garlic, then add butter and lemon juice. Very simple and very good.

  26. admin
    May 8, 2010 at 6:43 PM

    Gastro – You’ll be back here before you know it and then we can do runs to Castroville – found this amazing market near there with the most incredible dates for $2.99/pound. Oh my, they were good.

    Sarah – You are far from alone. I have also been known to pick up strange ingredients, as I did on this trip. Strange to me as I have no idea how to use corn silk. Everything I found points to tea – any ideas?

    Christine – You had a garden in the city? Oh, how I envy you. I have a Bay window which works great for my herbs, but a little plot would be so nice. I’d never thought of artichoke leaves as compost, but I bet they work great. Love the sound of your simple preparation – I like simple then the flavor of the choke shines through.

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