The artichoke, or Cynara scolymus, a thistle family member and grandchild to cardoon, is a perennial with a four year life span. Read more.
The artichoke, or Cynara scolymus, a thistle family member and grandchild to cardoon, is a perennial with a four year life span. The artichoke proper is actually an unopened flower bud. Though the interior fuzzy “preflower” lining the heart of the artichoke is referred to as the “choke” (try eating it), in produce parlance the whole bud is “the ’choke”. If left to blossom, a large, striking deep blue bloom unfolds. Plants send up several large sprouts, upon which one large main ‘choke forms, with offshooting stems producing various smaller buds- hence the sizes small loose, 48’s 36’es, 24’s and 18’s.
Prime artichoke time generally runs mid-March through mid-May, give or take. Every season is different and very weather dependent. This ‘choke season, what with our frost-laden winter, is off to a slower start with some frost kissed thistles working their way out of the supply chain. A second, autumn crop can be encouraged by cutting main stalk down after spring flush, but this stresses the plant and can cause a less robust spring crop.
The green globe variety is what we primarily see, which thrives in cool coastal climes from Pescadero through Watsonville. Globe ‘chokes feature a meaty, heavy heart and high yielding bracts (outer petals of the actual ‘choke). Alan Davidson, in his The Oxford Companion to Food, said this about eating these bracts, or petals, “The eater must be equipped with strong front teeth and patience”. Desert varieties are becoming more prevalent, bred to withstand warmer weather to extend season. While less “meaty”, they’re decent eating.
Ancient Romans cultivated artichokes to eat fresh, and to brine. Catherine de Medici brought them from her native Florence to France as she became Queen, beginning a love affair between the French and the ‘choke. French colonists brought the ‘choke stateside to Louisiana. After two thousand years of cultivation in Italy, Italian immigrants who settled in the Half Moon Bay area a hundred years ago completed the last leg of the artichokes journey to our door.
Fresh ‘chokes are heavy for their size. Best are compact, tightly closed heads- easy in early spring, but as weather warms the buds tend to splay open. In the winter, though ‘chokes are hearty, cold weather and frost cause browning and possible blistering of leaves. Some swear this frost kissing sweetens these cosmetically challenged ‘chokes.
Organic artichokes are challenging to grow (critters and bugs love them), but increased demand has encouraged some local growers to dial in the cultivation, including T&D Willey Farms ( now just hitting prime time), Riverdog Farm and Tutti Fruitti. Soon Knoll Farm’s 3-4 week run of their varietal “vicious chokes” should start, named for their pronounced, wickedly spiked bracts. There are about 5 different varieties in this mix, varying in shape and hue, all small.
Cut ‘chokes discolor unless placed in acidulated water. To maintain beauty, use non-reactive pans and knives. Shave thin, raw, for pairing with Parmesan Reggiano, drizzled with truffle oil- maybe with fennel in the mix. Simmer long in olive oil for an amazing antipasto. Steam, braise, grill, frito misto, or sauté with other nubile spring veggies- carrots, onions, asparagus! Brown trimmed wedges with your favorite potato. Gratin with Parmesan, cream and herb of choice. Stuff whole with any combo of bread crumbs, sausage, herbs, garlic, onion, mushrooms. From ragus to risotto, with our without peas and spring onions, they shout spring. Pair with grapefruit for a refreshing salad twist or with pasta, olives, capers, garlic, a rich olive oil and Asiago. Or try a truffade with potatoes, bacon and Gruyere. The incredible, edible Artichoke is in full spring form.