Friday, June 05, 2015

Anatomy of an Artichoke

In the most recent newsletter from the Beaverton Farmers' Market, market manager and gardener extraordinaire Ginger Rapport shared a comprehensive and useful guide to the history and culinary uses of that spiky-on-the-outside, tender-in-the-middle seasonal treat, the artichoke. They are well-adapted to our moderate climate in the Northwest, and they can be found in abundance at farmers' markets in the area.

We have often wondered what made someone look at an artichoke plant and decide to try to eat it. After all, they are fairly intimidating with their spiky leaves and scratchy choke. It must have been someone who was very hungry! Unlike a carrot, which is a fairly straight forward vegetable, an artichoke has secrets that you need to know in order to enjoy them.

History: Artichokes are members of the thistle group of the sunflower family. The edible portion is actually the plant’s flower bud. Artichokes date back to the time of the Greek philosopher and naturalist, Theophrastus (371-287 B.C.) who wrote of them being grown in Italy and Sicily. Ancient Greeks and Romans considered them a delicacy and an aphrodisiac. They also believed that artichokes were effective in securing the birth of boys. Cultivation of artichokes spread across the Mediterranean and French immigrants brought them to the United States in the 1800s. It was in the late 1800s that Spaniards brought them to California which today grows nearly 100% of all artichokes grown commercially in the U.S. Fortunately for us, Denoble Farms in Tillamook grows them and brings them to the Beaverton Farmers Market.

Basic Artichoke Preparation: Have a cut lemon handy because you will need to rub it on any recently exposed surface of the artichoke to keep it from darkening.

Start by pulling off any petals at the base of the artichoke which are small or discolored. Cut the stem close to the base. Cut off the top of the artichoke about a quarter of the way down. If the petals on the artichoke have thorns, use scissors to cut off the tips. Some people do this anyway because they like the look of it but it is not necessary. (Don’t forget to use your lemon on these raw areas.)

Squeeze the remainder of your lemon into a large pot of boiling salted water. Add the prepared chokes and cover with a white dish towel to help keep them submerged. Depending upon the size of the artichoke, it will take anywhere from 30 – 45 minutes to cook. To test for doneness, pierce the stem end with a fork. When properly cooked, you should get a little resistance against the fork. If it pierces too easily you have probably cooked them a bit too long.  Remove from water and drain upside down in a colander. At this point they can be eaten immediately or refrigerated for later use.

Eating An Artichoke: Peel off a petal and notice the soft part at the base. This is the only part of the petal you will be eating until you get closer to the center where the petals become more tender. If you want to dip the bottom of the petal into a sauce or dressing, now is the time. Pull the petal through your teeth removing only the soft, pulpy part at the bottom. Work your way around the artichoke until all of the petals are removed. As you work your way towards the center, the texture of the petals change. You may or may not enjoy eating them at this point in which case you can just pull them off and discard them.

You will be left with the artichoke bottom, topped with the inedible choke. Using a tablespoon, scrape the fuzzy choke off of the bottom. It is very obvious where the choke stops and the bottom begins. It is the bottom of the artichoke that you want to eat. Typically it is served with melted butter, or some kind of dip or dressing. It can be eaten hot or cold, or cut up and added to other dishes such as salads, pastas and eggs. Artichokes have a bad reputation for being fattening because they are usually served with a mayonnaise based sauce or butter. A large artichoke is only about 25 calories so it is only as fattening as what you are serving with it!

Selecting an artichoke: Globe artichokes should be heavy for their size and have a tight leaf formation. Avoid artichokes which are wilting, drying or have mold. Both raw and cooked artichokes can be stored in your refrigerator for up to a week.

Photos from the Beaverton Farmers' Market.

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