Artichoke: The Plant With a Heart

Artichoke: The Plant With a Heart

Early History

In the early 16th century, artichokes were considered an aphrodisiac and, thus, taboo for women. It was believed that they gave men enhanced sexual prowess and it would have been scandalous for a woman to enjoy them. Fortunately, when Catherine de Medici became the 14-year old bride of Henry II, she introduced artichokes from her native Tuscany into French cuisine and soon the ladies of the French court were enjoying them as much as the men. For a time, artichokes were reserved for the wealthy, but as their popularity spread, prices dropped. Today California is the main source of artichokes in the U.S.

Growing Artichokes in the Home Garden

The artichoke is actually a flower head or bud that is picked before it is fully matured. If allowed to blossom, the bud will produce an inedible brilliant blue-purple thistle-like flower, larger on the main, central stem and smaller on the lower branches. What we call the leaves that resemble petals are actually bracts. The edible portion is at the base of the bract where it attaches to the heart or stem, which is also edible, and considered by many to be the best part of the artichoke.

Planting Suggestions

Artichokes thrive in very deep, sandy, well-fertilized, and well-drained soils that provide plenty of room for root development. Plants produce for five to ten years with new growth of shoots stimulated by completely cutting back the plant several inches below the surface. This is done after every harvest. They will propagate by sending off new plants from the root. I find they may start new plants every few months, increasing the number of producing artichoke plants. Transplant if they become too crowded. Artichoke plants take a lot of room. They also can be grown as a patio plant if they are given a large enough pot or container and plenty of rich compost!

Nutritional Benefits

Artichokes are a low-calorie (about 60 calories for a large artichoke), low-fat (0 grams) food. Artichokes are also a good source of fiber (about 6 grams), high in vitamin C, folate and magnesium. They contain appreciable amounts of calcium and iron, as well.

Artichoke Preparation

To steam an artichoke (the best way to cook them), cut off about 1/3 of the tip of the unopened blossom. Use a serrated knife and lay the artichoke on its side to cut, using a sawing motion. With scissors, cut off about 1/3 of each large leaf, as well. Pull the leaves apart gently to separate them and allow the steam to penetrate. Place upside down in a steamer basket in a stainless steel pot (do not use aluminum or cast iron for cooking artichokes as it will tend to discolor the artichoke), or in a pot with about 1 inch or water, and steam for about 20 to 25 minutes, or until a butter knife can be easily inserted in the heart (where the stem meets the blossom).

To retain the green color, add a slice of lemon to the steaming water before cooking.

Remove from the steamer and serve with plenty of paper towels (eating artichokes can be messy) and a dish for the inedible parts of the leaves. Enjoy by pulling a leaf from the blossom, dipping it in your favorite sauce and pulling the leaf between your upper and lower teeth to scrape off the tender part of the leaf. Discard the tougher, inedible portion. The outer leaves are generally tough and stringy but as you get down deeper in the bud the leaves are very tender.

The Heart of the Matter

When you have eaten all of the leaves, carefully cut away the thistle-like hairs (with a spoon or small knife) and what remains is the tender heart, considered the treasure of the artichoke. Dip the heart and savor the flavor. The tender part of the stem close to the blossom may also be eaten.

Packaged Artichokes

Jarred or canned artichoke hearts (packed in water, brine or olive oil) are a treat that can be eaten as is, sprinkled throughout a salad, or cooked in a pasta sauce or on pizza. Stir some into a ratatouille, pasta sauce, or moussaka. They can also be seasoned and broiled or baked.

Dipping Sauces Try one of the following dipping sauces or use your favorite organic salad dressing! Thousand Island, French, Ranch, Tahini, Italian, Goddess dressings are all tasty and do the trick.

Garlic Dipping Sauce Recipe This is my favorite and the ultimate dipping sauce! Makes about 1 cup

1 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon (or to taste) granulated garlic

1 tablespoon regular or dairy-free parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast (optional)

1 tablespoon finely minced fresh basil

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix with a wire whisk until well blended. Enjoy! (if you like, sauté the garlic first in a little olive oil)

Yogurt Dipping Sauce Recipe This recipe can also be made with kefir. Makes about 1 cup

1 cup plain yogurt (use dairy or dairy-free yogurt as required)

1 tablespoon balsamic or red wine vinegar (or lemon juice)

1 teaspoon fresh or dried dill

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix with a wire whisk until blended. Enjoy!

Mayo Dipping Sauce Recipe This recipe is simple and delicious. Makes about 1 cup

1 cup mayonnaise (your choice-vegan or regular)

1 tablespoon Italian herbs (basil, oregano, parsley)

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Mix with a whisk until well blended. Enjoy!

By Robert Oser for

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