Alhambra Farmers Market
Spring is officially just around the corner, which means flowers blossoming across the landscape and appearing at the Sunday Farmer's Market stands. As beautiful as they are to look at, rarely do I find myself thinking about popping petals into my mouth. But then I came across a stand with a massive pile of green spring thistles and changed my mind.
Artichokes are thistles in the same family as sunflowers, daisies, chrysanthemums, and echinacea. At the market are the flowers of towering stalks (between 4-6ft tall), which form a clustered bud surrounded by tough triangular thorny petals. The edible part is actually the meaty base (aka the heart), which is surrounded by immature inner petals and the "choke," a fuzzy mass of immature florets which, if left to mature, grow to become a beautiful (but inedible) purple flower. Depending on the maturity of the artichoke, the stem can also be edible once the tougher exterior is removed.
Originating in Southeastern Europe bordering the Mediterranean, artichokes were first brought to the United States in the 1800's by French immigrants to Louisiana and to California by Spanish immigrants. Most artichokes grown worldwide come from France, Italy and Spain, but in the U.S. nearly 100% of the artichoke crop is grown in California (Castroville in Monterey County calls itself the "Artichoke Center of the World," and hosts an annual Artichoke Festival). Generally available throughout the year, peak seasons are spring and fall.
When selecting artichokes, choose globes that are dark green, heavy for their size, and with tight leaves that "squeak" when you squeeze them. Stay away from artichokes that are turning brown, or if the leaves appear to be opening too much. These may be indicators of more mature artichokes that tend to have tougher leaves and less tender edible flesh.
Tackling an artichoke can seem daunting, but it's surprisingly easy, especially after following Elise's guide over at Simply Recipes. Trim the stem, slice off about 3/4 inch of the top and boil (or steam) the artichokes for about 30 minutes until the leaves are tender. You can also clip the thorny tips of all the leaves, but the thorns didn't really bother me (and I was a bit lazy/hungry). Once fully cooked, you're now ready to tackle the most polarizing part: the heart of the artichoke. Some will find this fun, others will see it as annoying and a waste of time. Either way, you're committed to the task. Start by pulling off the outer leaves, then drag the fleshy end across your teeth, scraping the tender pulp off the leaf (again, Elise's diagrams are super helpful). An initial dip in mayo, garlic aioli or melted butter makes the experience even better. Continue until all the petals are removed. You'll then find yourself with younger inedible petals and the fuzzy choke. Use a knife or spoon (or a serrated grapefruit spoon if you've got it) to scrape them out and discard. Consume the heart right away, or use in a salad, marinate in olive oil and spices, or topped on a pizza. If you have the patience to collect 2 cups worth of prepared hearts, you can use them in a classic spinach & artichoke dip. You can also remove the choke right after boiling, allowing you to stuff it with cheese and herbs, creating a self contained and edible dipping vessel. Roasting or grilling the artichoke will intensify its flavor, and will also bring out a toasty sweetness. And don't throw out the water you used to boil the artichokes, as this can be used towards soup or as an artichoke tea.
How do you feel about artichokes? Do you relish the methodical petal plucking, or find them frustrating and ultimately a waste of time? Let us hear about it in the comments, or send them our way at [email protected]!