Garden to Table
July 27, 2008
Originally hailing from the Mediterranean, the delicately meaty and antioxidant-packed artichoke is an intriguing thistle plant best known for its delicious, central “heart.” With a velvety, interior core and a thorny exterior that must be peeled away leaf by leaf, the artichoke has long been considered a potent aphrodisiac. Hundreds of years ago, in fact, it was considered scandalous to eat.
Today, the artichoke is widely enjoyed as an appetizer, dip ingredient or side dish. Steamed, boiled or grilled, the artichoke works well with a variety of sauces and lends its tender yet hearty flavor to any dish. Fat free and only 25 calories per serving, artichokes are a good source of vitamin C, folate and dietary fiber. Some studies even show that artichokes may help improve heart health and aid in digestion.
Artichokes are actually part of the sunflower family. At full growth, the plant spreads to about six feet in diameter and about three to four feet high. Its fern-like appearance is a result of its long arching leaves, which proceed from the base of a somewhat spiny stem.
Italy is the largest producer of artichokes at close to 500,000 metric tons annually, followed by Spain, Argentina and France and Egypt. The US produces about 50,000 metric tons in comparison, with most of domestic production stemming from California. Spain is the largest exporter of artichokes at close to 25,000 metric tons, followed by Egypt and the US.
California possesses an ideal climate for year round artichoke production thanks to its cool summers, mild winters, decent humidity levels and lower evening temperatures. Generally, artichokes thrive best in cool weather, with temperatures ranging between 45 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. They can grow well in many different types of soil, but prefer earth that is deep, fertile and well-drained.
Direct seeding is the most popular form of planting in the US and is accomplished by dropping seeds at an in-row spacing of two to three feet with bed widths ranging from 60 to 80 inches. During the growing period, artichokes require frequent irrigation, but require less fertilization than other vegetable crops to produce high yields.
Harvesting can take place year round in California, but 70% of the crop is actually harvested between March and mid-May (warmer weather harvests can tend to result in buds that are more fibrous and less flavorful). Artichokes are usually hand harvested one to two times per week at peak season, when the buds have achieved maximum size. They are then stored at or near 32 degrees Fahrenheit and at about 90% humidity for shipping to market.
Artichokes can be sold at a premium in the winter months, when supply is lower. In the spring, when prices drop, many artichokes are sold for marinating. There are more than 100 varieties of the vegetable, but “green globes” account for about 90% of domestically produced artichokes.
Two other well known varieties include the desert thriving “desert globes” and the thornless, wide-hearted, aptly named “big hearts.” Baby artichokes are simply green globes that are smaller because they are harvested lower down on the plant. Since baby artichokes are picked when they are fully mature, their flavor is almost identical to that of a larger artichoke.
When selecting an artichoke, chose one that is firm, compact and heavy, with a nice, even green color. Artichokes should be kept in plastic bags with a sprinkle of water to prevent dehydration. For best results, store them in the vegetable bin of the fridge and consume within a week.