Artichokes

In 1949, Marilyn Monroe was crowned "Artichoke Queen" in Castroville, California, forever ensuring the sex appeal of the mysterious artichoke bud. Today Castroville, on the central coast of California, is still the hub of artichoke production and "Artichokedom" playing host to the annual Artichoke Festival and Coronation Ball.

Artichokes

Nutrition Notes

With only 45 calories per one-half cup, artichoke hearts are a dieter's delight. They are also a good source of fibre and folate, a B vitamin that keeps the genetic material of cells in good repair. One-half cup delivers 20 per cent of a day's worth of folate and five grams of fibre along with magnesium, potassium and a little vitamin K.

The trick, though, is to keep the fat and calorie content of the dipping sauces, stuffings and fillings down to the bare minimum. Fortunately, one of the most enjoyable ways of eating an artichoke is plain steamed with freshly squeezed lemon juice.

Here's the nutrient breakdown of one-half cup of cooked artichoke hearts, unsalted:

Calories

45

Carbohydrate 10 g
Fibre 5 g
Protein 2.4 g
Magnesium 35 mg
Potassium 240 mg
Folate 75 mcg
Vitamin K 12.5 mcg

Source: Canadian Nutrient File, 2007b

Varieties

Native to the Mediterranean, the artichoke is a perennial in the thistle group of the sunflower family. Fully grown, the plant spreads to cover an area about six feet in diameter and reaches a height of three to four feet. It has a fern-like appearance due to its long, arching and deeply serrated leaves.

The "vegetable" or artichoke that we eat is actually the flower bud of the plant. The size of the bud depends on where it is located on the plant. Larger artichokes are found on central stems towards the top of the plant, where they receive maximum sunshine. Smaller or "baby" artichokes are found lower down on the plant where they are shaded from the sun by the larger buds above.

While there are many different artichoke varieties grown in warm climates around the world, only the Green Globe, an Italian type, is cultivated commercially in North America. It is globe-shaped in winter and spring but tends to be more conical in shape in summer and fall. Deep green in color it differs from some European varieties that have purplish or reddish leaves.

Other California varieties include Desert Globe as well as the thornless Big Heart and Imperial Star. The Green Globe and other varieties of artichoke are not related to the Jerusalem artichoke (also called sunchoke). The Jerusalem artichoke is a tuber and is not from Jerusalem nor is it an artichoke.

Buying

Peak season is from March through May but artichokes can be found year-round. Choose artichokes that are deep green, compact and heavy for their size, with leaves or scales, which are fleshy, thick, firm and tightly closed. If they look dry and woody or have begun to spread apart, the artichoke is past its prime.

The leaves should "squeak" when pressed together. Heavy browning usually indicates an old artichoke, however a slight discoloration on the leaf edges early in the season is generally frost damage and won't affect the vegetable's quality.

Check the stem end for tiny holes as these are signs of worm damage, which will probably be even more extensive inside the artichoke.

Artichokes are also available packaged in cans and jars or frozen. They are ready to eat as all of the inedible parts have been trimmed and removed. Canned artichoke hearts and bottoms usually come packed in brine. Marinated artichoke hearts, sold in jars, are preserved in a seasoned oil or oil and vinegar mixture. Frozen artichokes have no added ingredients.

Storing

Fresh artichokes are best used the day of purchase. Despite their hardy appearance they are quite perishable. Store unwashed and untrimmed artichokes in a plastic bag, for no more than four or five days. To keep them moist, sprinkle a few drops of water into the bag and seal.

Whole cooked artichokes should be wrapped in plastic wrap or stored in plastic bags. They will keep in the refrigerator for four to five days.

Preparing

To prepare whole artichokes

Rinse thoroughly with cool water making sure to spread the leaves apart to remove any grit stuck in between them. Cut of the top inch of the artichoke, as it consists of inedible leaf tips, with a large sharp knife. Clip off the sharp tips of the remaining outer leaves with scissors. Pull off the shorter, coarser leaves from the bottom and cut off the stem flush with the base so the artichoke can stand upright while it cooks. If not cooking immediately, rub the cut parts with lemon juice to keep them from going brown. Click here to wath a video about preparing artichokes.

To prepare baby artichokes

Rinse thoroughly with cool water. Cut off the bottoms of the stems and the top parts of the leaves. Peel the remaining stem. Remove outer leaves by bending them back until they snap. The meaty portion of the leaf should remain attached. Stop when you reach the inner, pale green leaves. Pare the outer layers from the artichoke bottoms. Halve each artichoke lengthwise, scoop out the thin center petals, then slice each half lengthwise.

To make artichoke cups

Prepare as for serving whole. Boil, steam or microwave, then let stand until cooled. Remove all the leaves from the cooked artichoke. Set aside to eat separately, if desired. Discard the thin petals covering the choke and use a teaspoon to scrape it out. The artichoke cup can then be stuffed and baked or served as is.

Cooking

Baking: First make cups from cooked artichokes, then fill the cavity and spaces between the leaves with stuffing. Stand the filled artichokes in a baking dish; add some broth, stock or water to the dish to keep the artichokes from drying out. Cover with foil and bake in a 350F oven until the filling is heated through. Cooking time: 20 to 30 minutes.

Boiling: Place trimmed artichokes, stem end down, in a pot of boiling water. The addition of 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar will help keep the artichokes from discoloring. Cover the pot and boil until an inner leaf can be pulled out easily. Drain thoroughly by inverting the artichokes in a colander. Cooking time: 20 to 40 minutes.

Microwaving: Trim artichokes, rinse but do not dry. Place in a microwaveable dish and cover. Cook on high, rotating halfway through the cooking time. Remove from microwave and let stand for about 5 minutes. Cooking time: for one artichoke, 4 to 7 minutes; add 3 minutes for each additional artichoke.

Sautéing & Stir-Frying: Sliced artichoke hearts and bottoms can be sautéed or stir-fried in a small amount of oil, stock or wine. Cook on medium-high for 3 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent sticking or burning.

Steaming: Steam trimmed artichokes in a vegetable steamer or stand several artichokes in a pan just large enough to hold them upright. Add 1 to 2 inches of boiling water (depending on how large the artichokes are) and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or a lemon wedge. Cover and simmer until tender. Cooking time: 25 to 40 minutes.

Eating

To eat a whole cooked artichoke, break off the leaves one by one and draw the base of the leaf through your teeth to remove the soft portion, discarding the remainder of the leaf. The individual leaves may be dipped into lemon juice or other sauce. Once the leaves have been removed, cut or scrape out the inedible prickly choke and discard. Then the tender artichoke heart and meaty bottom can be eaten.

The largest artichokes, weighing a pound or more, are best when stuffed with a savory filling and served hot or cold. Medium-size ones are recommended for eating with sauces as an appetizer or for a light meal. Baby artichokes are completely edible when properly trimmed and are best for marinating, serving in salads and for hot or cold antipastos.

Easy Ways to Eat More Artichokes

Breakfast

  • Add chopped cooked artichokes to frittatas, quiches and omelettes.

Lunch & Dinner

  • Mix cooked or marinated artichoke hearts into pasta and green salads.
  • Eat a whole steamed artichoke with your favourite dipping sauce for a tasty and nutritious lunch.
  • Add drained, marinated artichokes to wraps.
  • Top pizza with drained, marinated artichoke hearts and a little goat cheese.
  • Toss cooked, chopped artochoke hearts into whole grain pilafs, gratins and casseroles.
  • Sauté or stir-fry artichokes along with other vegetables such as bell peppers, mushrooms, broccoli and carrots for a satisfying side dish.

Snacks

  • Make a healthy version of artichoke dip and serve with crudités or baked pita chips.

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