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How Artichokes Nicely Trimmed My Ego

Artichokes Back in 1988 I thought I knew everything about produce. At the ripe old age of 26 I had already spent a third of my life plying the trade so, of course, there was nothing anyone could teach me. At the time, Whole Foods Market had just six stores - five in Texas and a new one in New Orleans (acquired through a merger with what was then called the Whole Food Company). We had just signed leases on two new stores - one in Richardson, Texas and the other in Palo Alto, California - our first store out west. I was produce team leader at our Dallas store and was drawn to Palo Alto because much of the organically grown produce we sold in Texas was grown around the Bay Area. I always remember the Palo Alto store during springtime because what saved me from my own insufferable arrogance was not a person but an item - artichokes taught me I did not, in fact, know everything about produce. Artichokes Twenty years ago in Texas, the artichoke was something of a non-item, relegated to specialty sections in the produce department. Occasionally, some grocery store would go out on a limb and promote them but, after a few days, the artichokes would dry up and the remaining pathetic specimens would migrate back to the area in the produce department reserved for misunderstood fruits and veggies. Thus was my "educated" mindset on opening day in Palo Alto in the spring of 1988 - my first experience serving the California customer I thought I knew. Artichoke In our shiny new store I built my neatly set specialty section with exactly 12 artichokes on display (1/2 a case). We opened at 9am and by 9:15 I was putting up the other half of the case. By 10am those were gone and I spent the rest of the day apologetically telling more than a few customers we were sold out - most of them understood but gave me that "you're not from here, are you?" look. The next day one case turned into five (gone by noon), five turned into ten for Friday (gone by 4pm) and by the weekend I had 50 cases on hand and 15 cases on display - along with a nicely trimmed ego and a new notion that maybe customers in California were different from those in Texas. Artichokes Becoming a resident of Northern California, I also fell in love with artichokes. Around the time the first early chokes come out of the fields in Castroville (about 100 miles south of San Francisco), the winter/spring rains are just about finished and the hills that are normally dry and brown most of the year are a lush green. By mid-April we are also past the time where we are at risk of frost (the exterior surface of artichokes are extremely delicate) so artichoke growers here are safe from the "frost kissing" effects on their crop. There is also significant production in the deserts of Southern California but I'm a romantic, preferring the artichokes that come from the rolling hills closer to my home. Artichokes The season for artichokes will vary from year to year and is very weather dependent. A cold, rainy winter can slow growth and delay harvests. In general, desert chokes will start in late February followed by Northern California production in late March/early April. The spring season is generally finished by late May and there is a much smaller fall season as well (September to October). When selecting, you should always look for firm artichokes that are not dehydrated. Also look for thick stems (the heart is generally 1 1/2 times the diameter of the stem so the thicker the stem the bigger the heart). The most common way artichokes are prepared at my house is a simple steaming (30-40 minutes depending on the size) but artichokes can be stuffed and baked, roasted, or marinated and braised. My very favorite springtime dish comes peak season when multiple artichokes are reasonably priced - there is nothing I would rather eat more than cream of artichoke soup. Here's how to make it: Cream of Artichoke Soup
  • 3 large or 5 small artichokes
  • 1 medium white onion, finely chopped
  • 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
  • Pinch of nutmeg
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 28 oz low sodium chicken stock)
  • 2 oz heavy cream (optional
Steam the artichokes until the leaves can be removed easily (25 to 35 minutes depending on size). Let cool. then remove  the  leaves  (and save for dipping in vinaigrette or flavored mayonnaise) and  scoop out and discard the “choke” (the fuzzy inedible interior layer that eventually becomes the flower). The stems can also be used but you should trim off the exterior, stringy layer. Set aside. Artichoke Chop onions and sauté with olive oil in a 4 quart pot, taking care not to burn, until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the artichoke hearts and stems along with the nutmeg, pepper and chicken stock. Cook over low heat until liquid is reduced by 1/3. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Mix in a blender until smooth and creamy. Add cream, if using, and salt to taste. Reheat gently and serve with warm crusty bread (I like sourdough). My thanks to Bob Flood and Dave Haglund for contributing to this post.

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Susan A. says …

Hi, I LOVED your article about artichokes and have to say, although I have eaten and enjoyed them all of my life, I never TRULY appreciated them until I saw them growing in a field in Italy. That was one of those ahaa moments of life when you realize that food doesn't grow in your local market. My big question is this (and I am embarrassed to ask it) what part exactly IS the heart. I have eaten the hearts out of a jar, but when you are opening the artichoke and eating the leaves, discarding the choke and savoring the stem, where is the heart? Is it just the wimpy leaves with not enough "meat" to bother with? I would love to make the soup you suggested but didn't want to put in the wrong parts! Thanks!

Lauren says …

Mmmm...to find the heart: -grab that nice hunk of "wimpy leave at the middle of the choke and pull it up (you can then bite the bottom of the bunch off and enjoy this nice pre-cursor to the delicatable heart) -use a spoon to gently scrape the spiney lookin' hairs off and discard them (do not be tempted to eat these...OUCH) -the slightly bumpy smooth slightly concave disk you are now holding in your hand is the "heart"...ENJOY! (See a photo of this part, in its more recognizable raw form on this blog: http://www.cookthink.com/blog/?p=426 and a cool tutorial on the art of eating artichokes here: http://www.elise.com/recipes/archives/000262how_to_cook_and_eat_an_artichoke.php On a sidenote, I assume that the "artichoke hearts" that we buy in cans are from very young artichokes because if the artichokes were fully mature, those spiny parts that I mentioned scraping off would be more developed and, I fear, painfully noticable!

says …

Hi Susan A- That is actually a very good questions because the answer varies depending on who you you ask. The “Heart” of the artichoke in the mind of a produce nerd is the inside bowl-shaped center of the plant that is directly below the fuzzy “choke” and terminates at the base of the plant where it connects to the stem. For the soup I use the stem (I remove the outside layer) and the bottom half of the interior leaves as well (all of the one’s that are a light shade of green) as they further softened when you cook them down in the broth. Hope this helps and you like the soup- it has this “essence” of artichoke that comes with a texture change that is remarkable if you really like the flavor of artichokes. I was going to add a few paragraphs about Italian artichokes but I felt like the post was running a little long- there are some beautiful red specimens that are grown in the US now that originate from Italy - I can imagine them in the field (it must be beautiful). Thanks for sharing, JP

Page says …

I loved your article. I really love artichokes!! I have found a faster way to cook them than steaming them. I cut off the stem (save, peel & cut in rounds), wash by running under H2O then turn upside down to drain. Then I put it in a cereal bowl & add about 1-1 1/2" of H2O. Cover with plastic wrap & put in the microwave. The larger the artichoke, the more time. I can cook a real jumbo one & it takes maybe 8-9 minutes. You can test for doneness by unwrapping (careful-steam!) & pulling out 1 of the leaves. If it pulls out easily, it's done; if not, put back in for 1-2 minutes more. Carefully remove from the bowl & set on paper towel. Cook the stem in the H2O until tender. Yumm!!!