Spring is prime for artichokes, which are spiky edible thistles related to the sunflower. Artichokes are technically flower buds that have yet to bloom, and they consist of several parts: the stem on the bottom leads to the heart – the prized portion of the plant – which is surrounded by bristly fibers called “choke” (it’s aptly named because eating the choke might cause choking). Around the choke are layers of leaves, or bracts, which have pointy spines similar to thorns. Though artichokes may appear impressive in size, people tend to commonly consume only two parts of the plant: the heart and the fleshy bases of the bracts.
Where Do Artichokes Come From?
Historians believe this thistle plant is native to the Mediterranean region. Artichokes eventually made their way to Spain, thanks to Arab travelers, and Florence-born noblewoman Catherine de’ Medici likely brought the artichoke to France when she married into the French royal family.
How the artichoke ventured to the United States is not definitively known, but theories suggest that the Spanish probably brought the plant to California by the 19th century, and the French might have introduced artichokes to other American states, such as Louisiana.
Today, over 99% of commercial artichokes in the US are grown in California – specifically in Coachella, Castroville, Thermal, and Oxnard. The state boasts a Mediterranean-like climate and soil, which allows the plants to thrive. There are many different varieties of artichokes, but Green Globes remain among the most common. Though artichokes are in stock year-round in most of the United States, their peak season is early spring and, to a lesser-degree, late autumn.
What to Look For When Buying Artichokes and How to Store Them
Credit: @Talarico’s Produce LLC
Fresh artichokes should be firm and somewhat hefty in weight relative to its size. The leaves, or bracts, are ideally tightly packed. If an artichoke has dry, loosened bracts that are falling off in your hand, then you should search for a better one. The stem may appear brown, but this is fine as long as it’s not desiccated or clammy to the touch.
Some artichoke fans swear by the “squeak test,” which involves giving the plant a squeeze and, if it’s fresh, the bracts should make a squeaking sound.
Artichokes can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for up to a week (refrain from washing the plant before storage, however, as the moisture could cause it to spoil more quickly). When its bracts begin to spread apart, try to use the artichoke as soon as possible.
How to Prepare and Eat Artichokes
Credit: @Marisa | Uproot Kitchen
Depending on how you plan to cook the artichoke, there are a few methods for preparation. But first, basic prep: wash the artichoke. If you plan to steam or roast it, then use a knife to cut off its stem at the base. For grilling, simply discard the brown part of the stem’s end. Since the outer bracts have thorny spines that can – and will – poke fingers, use kitchen shears to trim the prickly edges. If there are too many spikes on the bracts and you don’t have time for that, simply slice off the plant’s crown with a knife. Sometimes cooks choose to rub the artichoke with lemon because the acid helps prevent the plant from browning. Now the artichoke can be cooked in a steamer, tossed on the grill, or roasted in the oven.
As far as bracts go, people tend to only eat the fleshy bases (not the entire leaf), so when eating the bract, hold it from the trimmed side and dip the base into a sauce, such as lemon garlic aioli or hollandaise.
To reach the artichoke’s most-valued part – its heart – you will have to remove the outer and inner bracts until you reach the hair-like choke. Carefully remove all of the choke from the heart, then enjoy the soft heart by itself or with sauce.
Now that you know all about how to choose and prepare artichokes, head over to the F.N. Sharp Kitchen to test your skills with this recipe for steamed artichokes with agave mustard dip!