May 5, 2008

Artichokes, Cynara Scolymus

This thorny darling of spring grows in many shapes and sizes, ranging from large bulbous globes to small conical egg-shaped flower buds. A member of the aster family, this beautiful blossom is chock full of vitamins and minerals. Left to bloom an intense bluish-purple flower will emerge.

According to an Aegean legend, the god Zeus was leaving from a visit with his brother Poseidon and as he emerged from the sea, he spotted this beautiful young woman, Cynara. He managed to seduce this lovely mortal and with the blink of an eye he turned her into a goddess. Cynara soon grew homesick living on Mt. Olympus, so secretly she snuck back to the world of the mortals to visit her family. Zeus was enraged by her behavior and hurled her back to earth transformed as the thistle we know and love, Cynara Scolymus, the Artichoke.

Sicily is the probable place of origin, in a broader sense the Mediterranean. Although the US origins seem to be a little muddled, it's said that the French brought this edible thistle over to Louisiana in the early 19th century, however by the mid 20th century most growth ceased. This is where the history seems to get fuzzy, around the turn of the 19th century, one of two groups brought the artichoke to California, either the Spanish or the Italians. I like to think it was the Italians, as they've been cultivating it for at least 2,000 years and have all sorts of creative ways of incorporating it into a meal. Either way, mainstream production didn't really take off until the 60's. Cut to current day, California is the main producer for the US.

Plays nicely with: Goat cheese, fresh herbs, butter, Parmigiano Reggiano, olive oil, garlicky aioli spiked with lemon juice.

Nibble on this: One medium-size artichoke has only 60 calories (of course until dpped into oil, aioli, cheese or butter) and healthy doses of calcium, magnesium, chromium, manganese, iron, folate, fiber, potassium, Vitamins A, B, C & K.

A trip to the Market: A fresh artichoke should have a bright color and feel heavy for its size. Remember, an artichoke is the unopened blossom of a flower, so the petals should form tightly together, if they are open and ready to bloom the choke will be too large, hence an overripe veggie. The stem should not look at all shriveled, make sure that it is moist and freshly cut, the thickness of the stem will give you a sense as to how large the heart is. The petals should feel firm and fleshy. In fact, give them a gentle squeeze and they should eek out a tiny squeak. Don't worry so much if the outer petals have light scaring due to handling, typically we don't eat those. Also, if you see small blisters from the frost, all the more reason to take it home, as with most vegetables a "kiss" from the frost brings out the sweetness.

Handling Tips: When preparing artichokes, always have a bowl of lemon water set aside (1 quart of water to 4 tablespoons of lemon juice) or rub the cut areas of the artichokes with lemon juice or olive oil to keep them from turning brownish-black. Aluminum and iron will discolor artichokes, so never place aluminum foil directly on top of them, instead cover with a layer of parchment paper and then foil.

How to Eat an Artichoke: Just in case you're a first-timer to the delights of Cynara Scolymus. Pull off the outer petals, one at a time if you like or I suppose it can be done all at once, I prefer to savor the process of pulling off one and dipping, then eating and so on. Okay, back to the eating tid-bits, Dip it in sauce if you like, or if you've prepared my Artichokes Stuffed with Garlicky Herb Goat Cheese, then simply hold on tight to the top of the petal, place in your mouth (inside of the petal down on your tongue), remember grip tight and pull through your front teeth, this will give you a small mouthful of the tender, pulpy goodness. Toss the remaining petal aside to compost or trash (as it's too fibrous to nibble) and continue on until you get to the tasty heart. If you've simply steamed or boiled your artichokes and not scraped out the choke, then you must remove this fuzzy bit before you reach the heart. Do just that, scrape out the fuzz with a spoon or melon baller and buon appetito!

No comments:

Post a Comment