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.
With a tender heart
Dressed up like a warrior,
Standing at attention, it built
A small helmet
Under its scales
By its side
The crazy vegetables
Their tendrills and leaf-crowns,
In the sub-soil
With its red mustaches
Hung out to dry its branches
Through which the wine will rise,
To trying on skirts,
To perfuming the world,
And the sweet
There in the garden,
Dressed like a warrior,
Like a proud
And one day
Side by side
In big wicker baskets
Walking through the market
To realize their dream
The artichoke army
Never was it so military
Like on parade.
In their white shirts
Among the vegetables
Of the artichokes
Lines in close order
And the bang
Of a falling box.
With her basket
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
She enters the kitchen
And submerges it in a pot.
Of the armed vegetable
Which is called an artichoke,
Scale by scale,
We strip off
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.
Grilled Young Artichokes
- 6 young artichokes
- Olive oil for blanching
- Lemon juice
- Freshly ground sea salt and black pepper
- Peel off the outer leaves until you get down to only pale green-yellow leaves.
- Cut off the bottom stem so the artichokes stand flat.
- Cut off about 1/2 inch of the top of each artichoke and rub with lemon juice to acidulate and prevent discolouring.
- Heat some olive oil a small saucepan, enough so the artichokes will be totally submerged, and simmer them gently for about 8 minutes.
- Drain the artichokes on paper towels.
- Save the olive oil to use for other frying.
- 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.
- 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.
UPDATE: OCTOBER 4, 2021 Searching for thanksgiving poems, this one by Richard Foerster begged to be entered here:
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 utterance 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 &
rows of thorned
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.