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Produce Profile by Mark "Guido The Gardner" ® Ferro
Artichokes- My Artichoke World

Welcome, Produce Profilers to my produce world! And more specifically to my artichoke world!! It is officially spring when these kissin' cousins to the thistle start appearing in the local produce palaces. (With regard to that springtime comment, I will disregard the ample presence of a very cold non-spring-like rain falling outside.)

Although wild specimens were enjoyed in way olden days by the Romans, artichokes were not formally cultivated until the fifteenth century by, no surprise here, the Italians. (Italy's artichoke infatuation is illustrated by the fact that they consume 175 per capita, while U.S. consumption is less than one per capita.)

Catherine de Medicis is credited with introducing the 'choke to those other European folks who know something about food, the French. Their popularity spread throughout Europe, but did not really grow U.S. roots until the 1920's. A couple of Italians planted 150 acres down Monterey way and now virtually 100% of the U.S. commercial crop is grown in California. With Monterey county being the big dog with a 75% share. (For the numerically inclined, that is about 6,500 acres.)

If you have ever driven down that way no doubt you've seen row after row of these bushy, silvery plants. They are perennial plants that produce year after year, although they are generally replanted after 5-10 years. They actually make a very decorative addition to a yard that has a forgotten corner that needs filling. (Last week I failed to mention that one of Sweetwater Nurseries most popular organic garden transplants is the artichoke.)

The plants produce year round but their big push is in the spring, March, April and May account for more than half of the harvest. Late fall brings a "second season" peaking around October.

Artichokes come in a variety of sizes. One size tastes no better than another, although the hunka- munka size packs the biggest heart. They are all picked mature, but the big ones grow from the main center shoot, mediums grow from the central portion of the plant and the babies grow at the bottom. For this reason, you fans of large, impressive artichokes should be eating them NOW. As the season progresses fewer large one are available.

Pick artichokes that are heavy for their size with a bright, fresh green color. Avoid those that are real banged up, but please realize that artichokes will

 

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brown when a cut or scrape is exposed to air. So even those that were properly handled will show a bump or bruise. They are especially susceptible to dehydration so be wary of those that are dry or have leaves folded in half. If your grocer displays them in ice...hooray! When you get them home, put them in a plastic bag with a spritz or to of water and they will keep 5 or 6 days. But your best bet is to buy them and eat them!!

RECIPE TIME! This is what I call my Sort of Steamed Artichokes. To prep bigger ones whole-slash off the top inch or so and lop off the stem and clean under cold running water. In a pot (size depends on how many 'chokes you're cooking) pour in about an inch of water then add a couple of glugs of olive oil, (In the Guido the Gardener Guide to Culinary Measurements, a "glug" is more than a "splash" but less than a "chug") a splash of balsamic vinegar, some chopped fresh herbs, and some chopped onions, garlic, shallots or other members of the speecy spicy family. You can also take the easy route and pour in some pungent salad dressing into your water. Once I used a ginger flavored dressing that gave the artichokes an unexpected but delicious flavor.

Get this mixture to a boil and then pop in the 'chokes bottoms up. By slicing the top off, it will sit straight up. And make sure to spread open the leaves.Turn down the heat and simmer until you can easily pierce the base with a knife - about 35-45 minutes. The point of all of this is to add flavor to the artichoke while it cooks, so you avoid all the dips and sauces.When tender ... mangia! Just pull each leaf between your teeth and savor the flavor. When you get to the heart, scrape out the fuzzy "choke" and enjoy the dense texture of the bowl shaped bottom. The strained cooking mixture also makes a delicious artichoke flavored soup base. It's ALL GOOD.

I eat them just because they make my stomach smile. But they are a Ô90Õs kind of food. Nutritious! (Vitamin C, folic acid magnesium, phosphorus et al.) And fun to eat, yeah! For LOTS of artichoke recipes, check out "The California Artichoke Cookbook", published by Celestial Arts. Lots of info for five bucks!

 

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