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Sonoma County Gazette

The Peasants Eat Thistles

Feb 27, 2018
by Ron Skaar


One of the oldest foods known to humans, the aristocratic artichoke has a very honorable history. Homer mentions the thorny vegetable as a garden plant, back in the 8th century B.C. In 300 B.C., the Greek philosopher Theophrastus wrote of artichokes growing in Sicily, consumed as a delicacy and as an aphrodisiac.

Artichokes were also a luxury in ancient Rome. Pliny, the early writer and scholar, noted that the artichoke garnered more esteem and fetched a higher price than any other vegetable. He regretfully acknowledged “thus we turn into a corrupt feast the earths monstrosities, those which even the animals instinctively avoid”.

The blossom of the thistle was cultivated and nurtured in North Africa by the Arabs. By 800 A.D. the Moors began growing artichokes in the area around Granada, Spain. The artichoke continued to be improved and transformed thru cultivation in medieval gardens.

During the 15th century the artichoke was avidly cultivated along the Mediterranean and by 1466 the feeding frenzy hits Florence, and then Venice. Eating artichokes was denied to women at this point because consuming them was thought to enhance their sexual prowess.

Catherine de Medici, the culinary rule and groundbreaker, introduces the artichoke to France, when she marries it’s king, Henry II. The neighboring Dutch were soon enjoying the new delicacy and from there the artichoke was introduced to England. By 1530 the globes are being cultivated at Newhall, in the great gardens of Henry VIII.

European immigrants brought artichokes to the United States in the 19th century. French settlers planted crops in the Louisiana territory around 1806 and, soon after, in the mid-coastal region of California, Spanish settlers did the same.

In 1922, a landowner in Salinas Valley leased his land to a band of Italian farmers growing the “new vegetable”. The artichoke crop brought him triple the value of the property, which previously was used for growing sugar beets.

The cool, foggy climate of mid-coastal California has proven ideal for the artichokes cultivation.

Almost all of the United States commercial crop now comes from this area, with 80 % of that grown in Monterey County alone. Castroville considers itself the “artichoke center of the world”.

The artichoke globe is actually an unopened flower with overlapping tough outer leaves or bracts, which are tender at the base. The fleshy “heart” is the flowers base. This edible portion corresponds to the edible portion of the strawberry and fig.

Artichokes are a good source of vitamins C, iron, potassium, magnesium and folate. A 2-ounce serving (the bottom of one big “choke”) has only 26 calories, but a generous 3 grams of dietary fiber. The total antioxidant capacity of artichoke flower hearts is the highest reported level for any vegetable!

Spring is the peak season for harvesting artichokes, March through May. An artichoke should be compact and heavy for its size, with leaves that are fleshy, thick, firm and tightly closed. If you squeeze the fresh artichoke you should hear a squeaky sound if leaves are still plump and crisp.

Marilyn Monroe, of course, became the first official “California Artichoke Queen” in 1949. And March 16th is the “chokes” national celebration day, a perfect time to steam, stuff, bake or braise.

RECIPE: Steamed Artichokes with Easy Hollandaise

1 lemon, cut in half

2 medium artichokes

Squeeze the lemon juice into a large bowl filled with cold water, and toss in the spent lemon halves. Use kitchen shears to trim the tips off the leaves, skipping the top two rows. Carefully cut off the top two rows of the artichoke with shape knife, cut stem flush to base. Toss chokes into the lemon water. Adjust a steaming rack in a large pot over water, set trimmed artichokes on rack. Bring to a boil, cover and cook until the outer leaves peel away easily, about 30 minutes. Check pot periodically to make sure water has not boiled away.

2 egg yolks

1/2 lemon juiced, or more to taste

1 pinch salt

1 pinch cayenne pepper

1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted

Beat first four ingredients together and slowly whisk in melted butter. Heat in microwave for 15 to 20 seconds. Whisk again. If sauce separates, add splash of warm water and whisk until combined. Serve immediately.

Photo by Jon Russo


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