By Dawn Swidorski
The artichoke is an edible bud about 3–6 inches in diameter with many triangular shaped leaves formed around a center. The edible portion of the bud consists primarily of the fleshy lower portions of the leaves and the base, known as the “heart”. At the center of the bud is the mass of immature florets in called the “choke.” In the Globe variety (which is the predominant US variety) and in large older European varieties the “choke” is inedible.
The artichoke is a perennial thistle which was cultivated in Northern Africa from the cardoon plant around 800 AD. It was brought to the Mediterranean where according to Greek and Roman literature it was widely cultivated as early as 77 AD. The artichoke made it to England by the mid 1500’s but didn’t gain much popularity. Spanish settlers brought artichokes to California in the 1600’s but they didn’t become widely grown or used until the 1920’s when the Globe variety rootstock was imported from Italy.
Europe still boasts many active varieties including: the Lyon which features tender meaty leaves or bracts, and very mild flavor; the Fiesole and Violetto’s are known for their very deep red wine color, square or blocky shape and “nutty” flavor. Over Eighty percent of all artichokes grown commercially are from Castroville, CA though they only grow the Globe Artichoke variety.
Artichokes are an amazing nutrient power house. In addition to being low in sodium and calories artichokes are fat free, cholesterol free, an excellent source of fiber, Vitamin C, folate and magnesium as well as an under recognized source of potassium. They also have a protein content for a plant. In addition, artichokes contain a dazzling array of phytonutrients or plant compounds that have antioxidant properties which promote human health.
Select artichokes that feel heavy for their size with tightly compacted fleshy leaves. If the leaves appear too “open” then the choke is past its prime. A fresh artichoke should squeak when squeezed. During the winter months (December to February), if you see Artichokes with a blotchy colored or white-blistered exterior appearance, be sure to try one. The appearance is the result of exposure to colder temperatures and frost. Connoisseurs believe these “Frost-Kissed” Artichokes are more tender and flavorful then regular artichokes.
“Baby” artichokes aren’t really babies at all, they are fully mature artichokes that grow closer to the ground and are smaller because they are sheltered by the larger leaves on the plant. They are equally delicious and easy to cook and prepare because the inner fuzzy portion of the choke does not develop.
To properly store an artichoke slice a dime width off the artichoke stem and sprinkle with water then store in the refrigerator for up to a week in an airtight plastic bag.
Count 1/2 cup cooked Artichokes or 1/2 of a medium Artichoke as one non-starchy vegetable exchange (serving). Each non-starchy vegetable exchange contains 5 grams of carbohydrate, 2 grams of protein, no fat, 1 to 4 grams of fiber and only 25 calories.
*Note: This is not the same as a Jerusalem artichoke. Also, know as “sun chokes” the Jerusalem choke is a tuber eaten raw or cooked. When eaten raw it is crispy and similar in texture to a water chestnut.
How To Clean and Prepare Artichokes
1. Tap the choke upside down in the sink. This will remove any insects that may have made this artichoke a home. Rinse the choke under running water.
2. Cut away part of the stem leaving about 1 1/2″ or so, trim then end and peel the top layer off the stem. Remove the really small leaves along the bottom of the choke. Cut off the top inch or so of the choke to remove the little thorns on the leaves with scissors or a sharp knife.
3. If the prepped artichoke is going to sit for awhile before cooking then place them in a bowl of water with the juice of a lemon to avoid discoloration.
The easiest way to actually cook an artichoke is in the microwave in an appropriate container. A quick zap of 3 – 5 minutes does the trick. You know the artichoke is done when you can grab a leaf towards the center and pull it out easily. The microwave method avoids the potentially soggy method of boiling the choke.
The actual eating of the artichoke eating is a hands-on affair. Pull each leaf off the choke and hold the pointed end between your fingers and drag the inside of the leaf between your teeth. Most of the edible portion is on inside bottom 1/3 of the choke leaf. As you progress further into the choke the leaves get thinner and tenderer and toward the center of the choke you may be able to eat the whole cluster of leaves.
Eventually you will reach a bed of fuzz which leads to the heart which is the meatiest and favorite part of the artichoke for most people. Scoop or scrape out the fuzz with a spoon and discard. The rest of the base of the choke is edible and delicious.
What gives artichokes a bad reputation calorie wise is they are commonly served with a dip such as lemon-butter or mayonnaise. However a light sprinkling of olive oil, lemon juice and sea salt is a low calorie alternative.
When you serve artichokes it’s nice to put a bowl on the table for the discarded leaves unless your serving plate is large enough to stack the leaves on the side.