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Getting to the Heart of it All

“The artichoke above all is the vegetable expression of civilized living, of the long view, of increasing delight by anticipation and crescendo. No wonder it was once regarded as an aphrodisiac.” Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book

Cynara cardunculus, carduus, kaktos, carchofas, arḍī shawkī, al-kharshūfa, ḥarshafa, alcarchofa, carciofo, articiocco, artichaud, hartichoak—Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, Italian: so many ancient names for artichokes, going back to the eighth century BC when people ate them wild, their prickly buds and tender hearts considered (still) a luxury and vaguely aphrodisiac. Looking at our many photos of artichokes in Sicily, where kaktos were first cultivated by the Greeks according to some, it’s clear we’re enraptured by this armoured vegetable with its Fibonacci pattern.

When did I first meet an artichoke, the early blossom of a thistle, one of the oldest foods known to humans? Was it in Saskatoon, canned artichoke hearts on a pizza in the late 60s?

Fondly, Magellan and I remember cheese-stuffed artichoke leaves, a favourite appetizer we ate with Marg and Don in the early 70s. Here’s their recipe. 1. Peel off the tough bottom leaves of a large artichoke and using a scissors, cut off the spiny sharp thorns crowning the top of each leaf. 2. Boil the artichoke whole in lemon-juiced water for about 20 minutes. 3. Peel off the fleshy leaves one by one. Remove the thicket of prickly fuzz, the “choke,” with a spoon and discard it along with the small leaves. The cook(s) get to eat the heart, the tender part in the centre. 4. Grate some orange cheddar (it was all we could afford) and another favourite cheese (Boursin herb and garlic is great), mix together and spread on the first inch or so of the inside section of the bottom of each artichoke leaf and arrange on a cookie sheet. 5. Bake at 400°F until the cheese melts, probably five or six minutes. 6. Arrange the artichoke leaves in a nice concentric pattern on a serving plate. To eat, pull the bottom through your teeth to scrape out the soft-end nugget of the leaf and the baked cheese.

Fast forward to the 90s and one of my favourite magazines, Metropolitan Home and the recipe featured in April 1995 for artichokes. Our niece Brandy insists it be on the menu every time she visits. To make this artichoke appetizer for six, follow steps one and two above, but use six artichokes, and ensure their bottoms are cut so they stand flat. When cool, gently spread out the leaves a little and remove the choke with a small spoon. (Warning: this takes a bit of patience and time. The choke is dry and unpleasant in your mouth so remove it all.) Mix 8 ounces of goat cheese, 3 tablespoons of whipping cream, 3 teaspoons of minced fresh thyme, 2 pressed cloves of garlic, and salt and pepper to taste and spread the mixture on each artichoke heart. Tighten up the leaves and wrap each one separately in foil. Bake at 400°F for 20 minutes. In the meantime, melt 3 tablespoons of butter with 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add 6 tablespoons of lemon juice and 1 teaspoon of minced thyme. Unwrap the artichokes, place them on individual serving plates and pour the hot buttery mixture evenly over the six artichokes. Each person plucks off a leaf, dips it into the goat cheese mixture in the centre and eats it in the same way as above, strained through your teeth.

Clearly, artichokes marry well with cheese. They also dress up fish or scallops, elevate a garlicy wine-braised chicken and can be sliced and eaten raw with a vinaigrette of olive oil, adding perhaps, diced shallots, capers, briny olives and thyme leaves. Although many people find them too fussy to cook at home, the flavour reward is well worth it.

The artichoke’s scientific name—Cynara cardunculus—comes from Greek mythology. The Greek God Zeus, while visiting his brother Poseidon, noticed a beautiful girl named Cynara. He instantly fell in love, made her a goddess and took her to Mount Olympus with him. Cynara, however, became homesick and started making secret trips to visit her family. As soon as Zeus discovered this, he turned her into an artichoke.

Artichokes, the edible flowers of a thistle and members of the Asteraceae family, a group that also includes dandelions and sunflowers,  and some say were hybridized by the Arabs. Italy’s Catherine de Medici, who is said to have adored artichokes, introduced them into France (where they were considered an aphrodisiac) when she married the heir to the French throne in the mid-16th century. The Dutch took them to England where they grew in Henry VIII’s garden. Around the beginning of the twentieth century, Italian immigrants popularized artichokes in California, which now provides nearly 100% of the artichoke crop in the U.S., about 80% of it from Monterey County. The town of Castroville has the ideal coastal climate for artichokes and proclaims itself “The Artichoke Center of the World.” Its Artichoke Food & Wine Festival has been an annual event since 1948—the vegetable’s sexy image started that year when Marilyn Monroe was crowned its first official California Artichoke Queen. Here in BC, Klippers Organics supplies Vancouver’s farmers markets with artichokes.

Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet-diplomat and politician who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, wrote this wonderful “Ode to an Artichoke,” published 1954-1959.

The artichoke
With a tender heart
Dressed up like a warrior,
Standing at attention, it built
A small helmet
Under its scales
It remained
Unshakeable,
By its side
The crazy vegetables
Uncurled
Their tendrills and leaf-crowns,
Throbbing bulbs,
In the sub-soil
The carrot
With its red mustaches
Was sleeping,
The grapevine
Hung out to dry its branches
Through which the wine will rise,
The cabbage
Dedicated itself
To trying on skirts,
The oregano
To perfuming the world,
And the sweet
Artichoke
There in the garden,
Dressed like a warrior,
Burnished
Like a proud
Pomegrante.
And one day
Side by side
In big wicker baskets
Walking through the market
To realize their dream
The artichoke army
In formation.
Never was it so military
Like on parade.
The men
In their white shirts
Among the vegetables
Were
The Marshals
Of the artichokes
Lines in close order
Command voices,
And the bang
Of a falling box.

But
Then
Maria
Comes
With her basket
She chooses
An artichoke,
She’s not afraid of it.
She examines it, she observes it
Up against the light like it was an egg,
She buys it,
She mixes it up
In her handbag
With a pair of shoes
With a cabbage head and a
Bottle
Of vinegar
Until
She enters the kitchen
And submerges it in a pot.

Thus ends
In peace
This career
Of the armed vegetable
Which is called an artichoke,
Then
Scale by scale,
We strip off
The delicacy
And eat
The peaceful mush
Of its green heart.

Although I call the edible portions of the truncated cones of prickly buds leaves, their proper name is involucral bracts. What we call the choke is actually a mass of immature florets in the centre of the bud. The English name hartichoak, corresponding to heart and choke, references the artichokes’ power to choke its eaters and choke out other plants in a garden. Artichoke plants live for about four years, producing a crop in spring and a second wave in the fall, each plant yielding about twenty artichokes.

Choose artichokes that feel heavy for their size and have tight leaves. Brown tips on the leaves are a sign of frost and actually make the artichoke taste sweeter. When you cut them, acidulate the cut areas with lemon juice right away so they won’t turn brown.

Artichokes are ranked number one among vegetables for antioxidants! An artichoke contains about 20% of your daily value of folate and Vitamins C and K, a healthy dose of Vitamin C, magnesium and phosphorus, and lots of fibre (29%), including inulin that benefits gut bacteria as a prebiotic.

At the River Café in London in the aughts, we discovered, or so we thought, the apex of eating artichokes. Carciofi Alla Giudia, artichokes simmered in olive oil, flattened to resemble flowers and then deep fried in olive oil.

Turns out it was the penultimate recipe—for purists, eating the whole of the artichoke is the ultimate.

Bereft from not travelling but with more time to scan my cookbooks, I tried a recipe for young artichokes by Alice Waters, the California queen of slow food. Magellan and I bought tomato-sized artichokes from Klippers Organics, tender buds picked before their prickly chokes had a chance to develop. I simmered them at a low temperature in olive oil. Then Magellan grilled them lightly on the barbecue, their leaves opening out, flowerlike. Sprinkled with lemon juice and sea salt, they were sublime.

5.0 from 1 reviews
Grilled Young Artichokes
 
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
 
Lightly adapted from a recipe by Alice Waters, I made this recipe twice this summer. Using smoked olive oil from Spain was a nice twist but I preferred plain old extra virgin olive oil. Alice suggests serving them with aioli but being a purist... Magellan and I cooked up a dozen or more and made them a main course, accompanied by generous chunks of Batard Bakery's Italian market loaf.
Author:
Recipe type: Appetizer
Serves: 2
Ingredients
  • 6 young artichokes
  • Olive oil for blanching
  • Lemon juice
  • Freshly ground sea salt and black pepper
Instructions
  1. Peel off the outer leaves until you get down to only pale green-yellow leaves.
  2. Cut off the bottom stem so the artichokes stand flat.
  3. Cut off about ½ inch of the top of each artichoke and rub with lemon juice to acidulate and prevent discolouring.
  4. Heat some olive oil a small saucepan, enough so the artichokes will be totally submerged, and simmer them gently for about 8 minutes.
  5. Drain the artichokes on paper towels.
  6. Save the olive oil to use for other frying.
  7. When the artichokes are cool enough to handle, open the leaves a bit so they spread out like an open flower, and put them on a hot bbq grill for a few minutes.
  8. Sprinkle with more lemon juice and sea salt.

 

Nigella Lawson describes artichokes as evoking the bosky taste of asparagus and mushrooms. Though delicious, the problem with artichokes is no matter how you serve them, they taste odd with wine. Like figs, artichokes contain a milky substance that creates a peculiar effect on the taste of wine. Experts recommend an Italian white wine from Veneto, like the flinty green Soave Sereole.

Artichokes—a metaphor for life. There are ways to cope with the prickly bits and at the centre you can find a tender heart. Or in the case with this recipe, devour it all.

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UPDATE: OCTOBER 4, 2021 Searching for thanksgiving poems, this one by Richard Foerster begged to be entered here:

“Artichoke”

For all the bother, it's the peeling away
we savored, the slow striptease
toward a tender heart—

how each petal dipped in the buttery sauce
was raked across our lower
teeth, its residue

less redolent of desire than sweet restraint,
a mere foretaste of passion,
but the scaly plates

piled up like potsherds in a kitchen midden,
a history in what's now
useless, discarded—

so we strained after less and less as the barbs
perhaps drew a little blood
and we cut our way

into the core to rid us of the fiber
that would stifle every ut-
terance between us.

In our quest for that morsel,
how we risked silence,
risked even
love.

And this one, “Chokes,” by Shin Yu Pai

I watch him brush
aside thin inedible

fibres, florets from
a thistle blossom

before tasting of
the flower’s meat
how I wish I knew

how to handle
the heart of another

firm beneath the tender
pads of tongue &

fingertip, under
rows of thorned

petals piercing
touch the rewards

of digging below choke
to find the delicate core

of a clean heart

Gray, Patience. Honey from a Weed. Devon, England: Prospect Books, 2009.

Waters, Alice. Chez Panisse Vegetables. New York: Harper Collins, 1996.

 

12 replies
  1. Diane Wilby
    Diane Wilby says:

    OMG I Love artichokes! John and I were first introduced to them in California in 1975. We will definitely be trying these recipes. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Spice
      Spice says:

      Good question! So I checked and guess what? Burdock is another form of thistle, but one that’s grown for its root. It’s popular in Asian dishes and works well in stir fries, braises and soups. When eaten raw, its taste will remind you a bit of an artichoke.

      Reply
  2. Myra
    Myra says:

    Gloria,

    Your & Kerry’s story this week brought savory memories of those lightly fried, tender-crisp little artichokes we devoured at Maialino’s in the Gramercy Park Hotel. Still think about them!
    Can’t wait until it reopens and we can enjoy a meal there again!

    Myra

    Reply
  3. Heather
    Heather says:

    I have had artichoke, but have to say I have never prepared them..Always seemed too fussy for me..kind of a scary cat when it comes to these delectable bits! Thanks for the recipes, maybe I will give it a try!

    Reply
  4. Barry MacLeod
    Barry MacLeod says:

    Just a heads up the opening line looks like it has been over written as in two lines in one. I believe last weeks story was the same?

    Not sure I have ever seen artichokes for sale here in Saskatchewan, possible that they are here, just not seen by me as I was not looking for them?

    I must have a better look next time.

    Interesting to see and try different foods from around the world.

    👍👍

    Reply

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