The artichoke is a perennial belonging to the thistle family, but which has an enlarged edible flower bud. Left to flower, artichoke blooms put on the most stunning of displays in a garden. The name artichoke has Arabic origins but the Italians adore them the most. They are also celebrated in many Mediterranean countries. On the Greek Islands they have a ‘day of the artichoke’, celebrated by eating them all day.
Globe artichokes are full of phenolic compounds. These show up when any surface of the stems are cut, and cause rapid browning. Phenols reportedly have cholesterol-lowering effects as well as antioxidants. According to Harold McGee, the guru of modern food science, artichokes contain a substance called cynarine, which inhibits sweet receptors on the tastebuds. The flavour of the flesh is somewhat astringent and blocks the sweet taste of anything eaten with it. And then, as if magic, anything eaten after has a delicious intense, sweetness. Could this explain why globe artichokes in the past were often eaten after the main meal and also put in the category of aphrodisiac?
What to look for
It’s best to get fresh, tight smallish-medium buds, around 7cm across. When larger, they can be more work to get to the tender heart. They should be tight and compact, unblemished and bright green or purple like a flower blossom. If checking for freshness, rub the leaves together, if they squeak, they have retained moisture and are fresh.
How to grow
The plants need space and good soil. In peak conditions they will grow over a metre tall then the thistles will extend past that. A great companion plant to lettuce and garlic, place them centrestage in a kitchen garden. You may only need one or two plants for plentiful supply. Plant seeds in autumn or, if your climate brings frosts, wait until spring.
How to store
Snipped from the garden, the flowers will need a good wash in salted water as bugs love to hide in the petals. Even when store bought, they can harbour insects. Every surface cut will suffer from oxidisation and begin to brown, so it pays to keep them soaking in acidulated water (water with an acid such as lemon juice or vinegar added) once trimmed. While preparing, use lemon juice and slices to cover them. For long-term storage, turn fresh artichokes into a jar full of marinated hearts.
If you can’t eat them all
Even when buds are picked, the plant continues to produce, so keep snipping to encourage new growth. The leaves make great foliage for any arrangement. If the flower is just too beautiful to pick and it goes to seed with the help of the bees, make sure to snip the seed head to plant next season.
Cooking with artichokes
Outer leaves must be trimmed and the inner part eaten only. The hairy choke is also inedible in larger flowers. Smaller artichokes are best trimmed to the heart but don’t need the choke removed, so can be braised or roasted whole. Larger artichokes can be cooked whole in a large pot of simmering water – add lemon juice to retain their colour. To eat, pull off the outer leaves one at a time and dip in a hollandaise, vinaigrette, good mayonnaise or melted butter, before pulling the leaves through your teeth to extract the fleshy part. The leaves become more tender closer to the middle. When you reach it, pull away the fibrous choke and you’ll be left with layers of petals that are be tender to the bite.
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