Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Artichoke: An Ancient Thistle

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word artichoke was originally an Arabic term, al kharsuf. Artichoke cultivation has been traced to ninth century North Africa; when the edible thistle was introduced to Spain in the middle ages it took on the Old Spanish name, alcarchofa; in ancient Italy it was called articiocco, which is clearly where the English word originated. The French say artichaut, and may comment that someone has "coeur d'artichaut, une feuille pour tout le monde". (A heart like an artichoke, a leaf for everyone.)

Artichokes grow well in California which produces 100% of the U.S. commercial crop. It is a thrill to see the rows and rows of silvery gray artichoke plants growing on the big farms along California's coastal roads in springtime. Every part of the plant has a magical, other worldly beauty; the long spiky leaves, the tightly closed green center leaves which form the edible globe, and the deep purple blossoms which bloom when the fruit is left unharvested. It is a food which may be enjoyed even without eating.

In my own neighborhood in San Francisco, I have discovered a beautiful artichoke garden nestled along the side of a private home; every year I enjoy observing the life cycle of these plants, one of which is in the photo above. In addition to being easy to grow and aesthetically delightful, artichokes are a gourmet springtime treat with excellent nutritional properties including generous amounts of antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein. So, whether you know it as al kharsuf, alcarchofa, articiocco, artichaut or artichoke, now is the time to enjoy this ancient edible thistle.

Preparation: Steam well rinsed artichokes gently in a steamer basket over simmering water until tender. Artichoke is done when a leaf detaches easily when pulled. Serve with a simple dipping sauce of lemon juice, olive oil and salt. Chilled or room temperature artichokes are delicious, so remember to steam a few extras to store in the fridge for later use.