Did you know that the artichoke, carciofi in Italian, is actually the flower bud of a perennial thistle plant related to the sunflower family? We eat the scale-like bracts, which we call leaves and the tender base of the flower, which we call the bottom or the heart. In strong sunlight the bracts open to expose the choke which unfold into a glorious violet blue flower. The size of the bud depends upon where it is located on the plant – way down among the shady plant fronds are found the baby artichokes where they are protected from the sun’s toughening and growth rays.
Italy is the world’s largest grower and consumer of artichokes. They are thought to have been bred from wild cardoons which still flourish on the countryside of Sicily and southern Italy. Although Italians grow hundreds of different varieties with or without thorns tipping the leaves, only 4 varieties are available in the United States and 98 percent of the commercial crop is the green globe artichoke.
Italian immigrants planted the first commercial artichoke crops in California in 1922 where virtually 100 percent of all United States artichokes continue to be commercially cultivated. They are an extremely labor-intensive crop as all the harvesting is done entirely by hand. Artichoke season peaks in March, April and May when they are an even green color, compact, globe shaped, firm and heavy for their size. Fall and winter artichokes tend to be conical in shape and may be touched by frost – “winter-kissed” – with a whitish, blistered appearance. Color ranges from light bronze to brown on the outer leaves but they turn green when cooked and many consider them to be the tastiest.
The California Artichoke Advisory Board states that with 16 essential nutrients measured against only 25 calories per serving, artichokes are extremely nutrient dense and a good source of dietary fiber and folate, which the typical American diet lacks. As part of a low-fat, high- fiber diet, it is said that artichokes can help reduce the risk of certain types of heart disease, cancers, and birth defects. Artichokes are easy to prepare, fun to eat and, since most herbal texts also consider them an aphrodisiac, there is no question that this vegetable should become a welcome and healthy addition to our diet.
Italians have a plethora of recipes for artichokes sometimes served raw as a salad but most often cooked and eaten warm or at room temperature. Most people cook the whole artichoke, and slip each petal one by one through their teeth pulling off the soft delectable pulp, leaving behind skid-marks on the fibrous outer leaves. They then spoon out and discard the fuzzy center at the base and enjoy the entirely edible base or heart. Throughout Italy artichokes flavor soups, rice and pasta, are braised in olive oil and herbs, baked in the oven with or without stuffing, roasted over embers, deep-fried with or without a batter, stuffed into meat rolls, cooked in a frittata or braised with a medley of other spring vegetables.
Choose artichokes that are compact, firm and heavy for their size. Sprinkle the artichokes with a little water and place in an airtight plastic bag. Refrigerate in the coldest part of your refrigerator for up to a week.
The simplest and quickest way to prepare a whole artichoke for dipping is in the microwave. Rinse the artichoke and cut the stem off close to the base. If the leaf tips are sharp, trim off the tops. Wrap each artichoke in a microwave-safe plastic wrap. Microwave one at a time for 6-7 minutes on High and let stand 5 minutes. Remove the wrap, push the leaves down to make them easier to remove. Serve warm or room temperature with a dipping sauce.
To prepare an artichoke for other cooking methods, including stuffing, which is very popular in North End restaurants:
Artichokes can make your hands turn black, so it is a good idea to rub your hands with a cut lemon and allow the juice to sink in. Also, rub all cut parts of the artichoke with lemon to prevent discoloration, and put the artichokes in a bowl of water acidulated with lemon juice to keep them from discoloring. Hold the artichoke in one hand and with the other, break off the very tough outer leaves. Be ruthless as most of the outer leaves are too tough to eat. Next, bend back the leaves, press the thumb of your other hand between the green at the top and the light yellow at the bottom; pull down toward the base and snap off just before you reach the base. This leaves the tender part which is attached to the heart, and removes the stringy, tough top. When you reach the rows in which only the top part of the leaves are green and the bottom paler and whitish, cut off the green tips completely with a knife. Spread the leaves open and look into the exposed center of the artichoke and you will see small leaves with prickly tips curving inward. With a long handled teaspoon scoop out the tiny leaves and scrape out the fuzzy ‘choke’, being careful not to cut away the tender bottom. After cleaning, put the artichokes in the acidulated water. The stalks and stems should be peeled to remove the tough outer layer and then the whitish core can also be cooked and enjoyed.
In Italy during the month of April there are sagre (festivals) that celebrate the artichoke in the regions where they are cultivated. Thousands of artichokes are cooked and served in multiple ways in the trattorias of Sezze Romano outside of Rome and in Cerda and Sciara, Sicily. I was fortunate to visit Cerda on several occasions during the artichoke harvest. On one warm Sunday afternoon, we joined several families as they sat under a blue striped awning at outside tables at the Trattoria Nasca. Children played games as they passed from table to table engaging everyone in their antics. Tiny, three wheeled open trucks filled with a pyramid of enormous round artichokes with one to two-foot stems still attached, stacked 5 feet high constantly passed by, teetering around corners, not giving up any of their precious cargo.
There is no menu at Trattoria Nasca and dishes continue to parade out of the kitchen, family style. The wine is locally bottled red or rose. We counted 11 different preparations of artichokes. Artichoke and potato frittata, baby artichokes dipped in egg batter and deep fried, sautéed with oyster mushrooms, artichoke caponata, in frittedda – that wonderful braised medley of spring vegetables, Roman style with wild mint, wood oven roasted, quartered and tossed in olive oil and hot pepper, huge artichokes roasted alla carbone and still covered with ash, agrodolce with wild fennel, and “Jewish style” alla giudea– fried until crispy outside, creamy inside, and look like a large chrysanthemum. And lastly, thinly sliced sautéed artichokes tossed with spaghetti and topped with fresh pecorino ricotta. Not mentioning the other dishes served would be an injustice; the artichoke dishes were merely the primo. Home-cured local olives and semolina bread, spaghetti with cinnamon-laced tomato sauce and bits of fennel flavored sausage, pasta con le sarde, a platter filled with a very thin coil of hot, spicy lamb sausage, slices of grilled pork and lamb chops. . . . Finally the cannoli and the amaro arrive, we see an end to all this feasting. The drive back to Palermo recalls the bumper to bumper stream of traffic returning from Cape Cod, but the view of never-ending hills and fields of artichokes cannot be duplicated. This day alone is worth a trip to Sicily in the spring. (Trattoria Nasca – Piazza Merlina, Cerda)