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September, 2009

The Artichoke: Definitely a Bud to be Nipped!

By Dennis Linden

While September and October make up the second of two peak production periods during the year for the California artichoke crop, this abundance is induced by man rather than the seasonal conditions of nature.

Considering the strange appearance of this edible bud of an immature bright purple flower when left to bloom, it is not surprising that this unique vegetable marches to a different drummer at harvest time too.

Artichokes are a perennial crop that growers maintain for five to ten years between replants, depending on yields. While the vegetable is available twelve months of the year, the majority of this crop is harvested in the spring and fall on a cycle that is initiated by cutting back the tops of the plants to several inches below the soil surface after each harvest to stimulate development of new shoots. This operation is called "stumping" and is timed to guarantee a harvest every six months, which is how long it takes the plants to produce another set of globes. Interestingly, stumping is practiced only by growers in California; the rest of the world (predominately Italy, Spain, France and Chile) top their harvested artichoke plants to several inches above the ground instead. Of course, proponents of each growing practice attribute better yields and extended plant lifespan to both methods. The artichoke is in the thistle group of the sunflower family and is believed to be a native of the Mediterranean region. One hundred percent of the commercial artichoke crops in the United States are grown in the valley that surrounds the central coast town of Castroville, California. Artichokes need a marine climate and thrive best in areas with foggy summers and winter days that are cool but sunny. Italian immigrants who settled in the coastal flatlands of California’s San Joaquin Valley have been tending artichokes for the domestic marketplace since the early 1920’s.

While the artichoke causes a chemical change in the mouth that greatly enhances sweetness, which is the reasoning behind the culinary warning that wine should never be enjoyed with or right after eating the vegetable, there are ways around this inconvenient phenomenon for wine lovers. First, be very selective with the type of wine chosen; pair artichokes with a very dry white wine with a high acid content such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Blanc or Pinot Gris. Conversely, stay away from red wines since the tannins they contain is what reacts with the artichoke to affect taste buds. It also helps to serve artichokes with a creamy dip such as a homemade mayonnaise or melted butter combined with fresh chopped garlic and a squeeze of lemon juice that will coat the palate. The lemon juice helps counteract the chemically induced sweetness and, of course, garlic helps just about everything!

You are also missing out on a flavorful experience if you are in the habit of throwing away the trimmed stems. Instead, peel them with a potato peeler and cook them along with the artichokes until fork tender. Stems can be sliced into rounds and incorporated into pasta dishes or chilled for use as a tasty salad ingredient. In fact, Long Stem Artichokes are a sought after delicacy carried by gourmet specialty grocery stores. These stems come attached to the largest globe of each plant, called a “king globe”. The “king” grows up the center of the plant and is harvested with about nine inches of the primary stem. In the fall and winter, you may see artichokes in the store that are tipped with a bronze blistered appearance due to exposure to light frost. Do not pass these by for cleaner appearing globes; artichoke aficionados call these “winter-kissed” because they have a special tenderness to the leaves as well as an intense nutty flavor.

Baby Artichokes
Baby Artichokes are not a separate variety but merely smaller versions of larger globes with one important distinction, they can be eaten whole once the first few layers of leaves have been careful trimmed. Their size comes from their location on the lower recesses of the artichoke plant where the large fronds shield them from the sun, thus stunting their growth. The inedible fuzzy flower centers that must be scooped out of the standard-sized globes have not yet developed in these baby buds. A quick blanch in boiling water before sautéing them, whole or halved, in oil and herbs for just a few minutes will prove that these tender little morsels make up in flavor what they lack in size. One last factoid that may serve you well the next time you play Jeopardy: Marilyn Monroe was the first official California Artichoke Queen in 1949. Happy “petaling”!