ARTICHOKE BASICS

Resembling swollen, green pinecones, artichokes can beautifully accent a spring centerpiece or, with their nutty flavor, delectably precede a buttery French dish. This uniquely shaped and flavored vegetable pairs perfectly with lemon, garlic or herbs. Forget buying the canned or frozen artichoke hearts, steam a whole globe and enjoy a fresh hallmark flavor of spring.

ArtichokeArtichokes can be eaten as a first course finger food or as an elegant side. However, they may be best eaten before a high-fat meal. According to Michael van Straten, author of The Healthy Food Directory, artichokes stimulate the gall bladder and liver, which increase the production of bile, a key in the digestion of fats. Cyranin, the chemical that gives artichokes their mild bitter taste helps increase the liver's production of bile as well as strengthens the bile duct so that it is better able to contract.

ORIGINS

Artichokes are the immature flowers of a thistle plant introduced to America by Italian and Spanish settlers. According to the California Artichoke Advisory Board, almost all of the artichokes consumed in the United States are grown in California, with over two-thirds grown in Castroville, located in Monterey County. These Californian 'chokes include green globe, desert globe, big heart and imperial star varieties. They are not to be confused with Jerusalem artichokes, which are grown in the Mediterranean.

CHOOSING ARTICHOKES

Though available year-round, the prime time for artichokes is March through April with a small yield in October. Choose artichokes that feel heavy and have brightly-colored, tightly-packed crisp leaves. Be sure to check the stem and avoid artichokes with black stems – it means they have been stored for too long. Avoid artichokes whose leaves are spread apart and appear woody and discolored. Steer clear of dry, wilted artichokes. Once purchased, artichokes can be stored for up to a week in the refrigerator, but are best eaten within two to three days.

HOW TO STEAM ARTICHOKES

Use a paring knife to trim the stem so the artichoke can stand upright. Snap off smaller, tougher leaves and use scissors to snip off the pointed leaf tips on the remaining leaves. Gently open up the leaves to expose the inner choke. Use a small spoon to scoop out and discard the hairy choke. Squeeze lemon juice onto the heart. Place artichoke in a bowl with water and lemon juice (to prevent discoloration) while preparing other 'chokes. To steam, fill a large pot with 2 inches of water and set over medium-high heat. Bring to a simmer. Add artichokes, stem end up, and cover pot. Lower heat to medium and steam until tender, about 25 minutes. Artichokes are done when leaves pull off easily and the heart feels tender when pierced with a fork. Drain well and cool on wire racks until room temperature. Serve artichokes stem side down at room temperature or chilled.

HOW TO EAT AN ARTICHOKE

Eating an artichoke for the first time can be initially daunting but soon becomes a fun finger-food experience. To eat, pull off a leaf and dip in a hollandaise or butter sauce. Then, holding the pointed end of the leaf, place leaf in your mouth, bite down, and pull leaf through your front teeth, scraping the fleshy part from the leaf into your mouth. Discard leaf and repeat. Once all of the leaves have been eaten, the artichoke heart can be eaten as well – just use your fingers to pop it in your mouth.

Artichokes are not only a beautiful hallmark of spring, they are good for you. In addition to being low in sodium and fat-free, one 12-ounce artichoke is a good source of vitamin C, folate and potassium and contains a mere 25 calories. Plus, as a vegetable with a heart, how can you not love it?

Can't get your fill of artichokes? Visit these links for more:

47th Annual Castroville Artichoke Festival May 17 - 18, 2008

California Artichoke Advisory Board

RECIPE: Spring Vegetable Stew

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