Artichokes Alexander Pope wrote that it was a brave man who first ate an oyster. What possible words can describe the heroism of he who first ate an artichoke? Not only did he have to consume it, but he probably had to invent it as well. At first glance — and maybe even after patient consideration — little about the artichoke indicates either edibility or conscious creation. The thing looks more like a primitive instrument of war than a domesticated product of agriculture. With its overlapping rows of hard prickly petals, it seems only one step removed from a stick with a nail stuck in it. Yet somehow, sometime, someone almost certainly did create the artichoke. Exactly how, when and who are unclear. Obviously, it happened well before anyone thought to copyright a plant, or even to write a scientific paper claiming academic bragging rights. But there is little doubt that the artichoke was invented.
The vegetable that we call an artichoke is actually the unopened flower bud of a plant that is an improved cardoon. (My colleague Charles Perry says the word “artichoke” is derived from the Arabic al’qarshuf, which translates as “little cardoon.”) If you visit ethnic produce markets — particularly Italian ones — you may have seen a cardoon. It looks like a prehistoric stalk of celery. It is outsize and a pale dinosaur gray-green with a thick, stringy skin. Peel it, chop it and cook it, and you’ll taste artichoke.
Why did our unnamed farmer decide that the bud of the cardoon was more desirable than the stalk? Is that even what he was going for? Did he really think he had accomplished his goal, or did he simply give up? There is something haphazard, even accidental, about the artichoke. One thing’s for certain: no modern plant breeder would dare to come up with something like it. More’s the pity. The artichoke is one of spring’s great vegetables, with a buttery texture and an appealing flavor — an almost brassy sweetness that combines well with a multitude of other ingredients.
But there’s no getting around it, the artichoke is a peculiar vegetable. First, of course, there is its form — like a thistle-covered mace. The edible part of the artichoke is an unopened flower bud, or, more accurately, a collection of flower buds. If it is left to open, the artichoke will turn almost inside out, blossoming into something that looks like a flat pincushion stuck with hundreds of tiny lavender-blue flowers. It is attractive in its own gargantuan way, and fully opened artichoke flowers are sometimes used by avantgarde florists to make visual statements in arrangements. The sharp, tough “petals” or “leaves” of the artichoke are what botanists call bracts, which are actually somewhere between the two. Bracts are tough, leaflike objects that protect the flower.
But the artichoke’s contrariness is more than skin-deep. In fact, peel an artichoke and set it aside for a minute, and you’ll soon discover another of its eccentricities. Exposed to air, artichokes turn brown or even black. This is not altogether unusual in itself — potatoes do the same thing, and so do peaches and shrimp, among many diverse foods.
The process is what chemists call enzymatic browning. The plant contains a substance that when exposed to oxygen changes the color of the flesh. This is not always bad. All tea would be green if it were not for enzymatic browning. In the case of artichokes, though, it’s hard to see the benefit, at least for the cook. But whereas it is almost impossible to prevent enzymatic browning, we can delay it fairly easily, either by preventing exposure to oxygen or by treating the flesh with an acidic compound. Neither of these takes any special equipment, just a bowl filled with acidulated water — plain old tap water to which you’ve added an acid of some sort (white vinegar and lemon juice work equally well). When you’re done, keep the artichokes in the water until you’re ready to cook them. Oldtime chefs used to call for cooking artichokes en blanc — in a combination of water, acid and flour. This only slightly improved the color and pretty much wrecked the flavor for anything other than serving them as glorified chips and dip. You’re better off settling for only minimal browning.
Another odd thing about the artichoke is its tendency to make everything taste sweeter — not in a good way, but that weird metallic kind of sweet you get from diet soft drinks. This is mostly caused by a naturally occurring chemical called cynarin (artichokes belong to the genus Cynara), which is unique to artichokes. This sweet reaction can be so powerful that it is almost off-putting. Sometimes the flavor is so strong that even a sip of water tastes as if it has been artificially sweetened. It is noo surprise that this sweetening makes artichokes extremely unfriendly to wine. It can be reduced by extended cooking, which resulllllts in a gentler, more complex flavor. Remember that when you’re thinking about a dish: Cook artichokes briefly, and they will have a big, brassy edge that can stand up to the most aggressive seasonings — anchovies, garlic, black olives . . . bring ’em all on. Cook the vegetable more gently, and you’ll be surprised at its delicacy.
Unlike most vegetables, which can be harvested only during a single season, artichokes actually bear twice. There is a large harvest in the spring — March to May accounts for about 70 percent of the total crop — and then a smaller one in late fall. Some connoisseurs claim to be able to detect a difference between spring and fall harvests, but if there is one, it is incredibly slight.
And, as if these weren’t enough oddities for one plant, the artichoke comes in many different sizes. In season the so-called baby artichokes can be one of the best buys in the produce department. These are actually fully mature chokes that are harvested from exactly the same plants as the big boys at exactly the same time. An artichoke plant sends up many flower stalks, some as tall as six feet. One or two of them will yield the large, steamer-size buds (weighing a pound or more apiece). Maybe half a dozen of them will be medium-size chokes (two or three to a pound). And then there will be a scad of smaller ones (roughly a dozen to a pound). Because most shoppers are interested in artichokes only for steaming, these smaller ones are tough to sell. Most of them go to canning, but many of them wind up in the produce aisle, where they’re sold cheap to savvy cooks who know their true value.
_ WHERE THEY’RE GROWN: Almost all of the artichokes in the United States are grown in California, most of them within fifteen miles of a small town called Castroville. There have been recurring efforts to expand the plantings to other areas in order to expand the season, but they have met with only mixed success.
HOW TO CHOOSE: Artichokes are one of the tougher vegetables; they’ll last quite a while with only minimal care. Still, choose the ones that seem heaviest for their size and that don’t have any visible damage. You don’t have to be too picky about this: the cut stems will, of course, be blackened already. And if there are a few dark spots, they won’t affect the flavor. The industry has come up with the marketing term “frost-kissed” for this kind of damage and claims that it makes the hearts sweeter. Perhaps, but it certainly doesn’t hurt them any. You can tell really fresh artichokes because their leaves will squeak when you rub them together.
HOW TO STORE: Keep artichokes in the refrigerator, tightly sealed. Don’t clean ...