Artichokes are a weird and wonderful vegetable. Many people find them rather intimidating to prepare.
However, they do have some great health benefits - they are very high in antioxidants, aid digestion, are great for the liver and gallbladder, and have also been found to improve cholesterol levels.
Vegetable Origins & Varieties
Globe Artichoke; Cynara scolymus. Family Compositae
This large member of the thistle family (1.2 -1.5m tall with a spread of 90cm) has been cultivated since Greek and Roman times. It is thought to have originated in the eastern Mediterranean but is now not known as a wild plant. It’s unusual amongst vegetables as we eat the immature flowers and the fleshy bases of the bracts (modified leaves that surround the flower head) although you can also eat the very young flower stalks and leaves.
The common name comes from the Italian articoclos, deriving from cocali, or pinecone – an accurate description of the flower bud.
There weren’t particularly popular until Catherine de Medici introduced them to France in the 16th century, from there they’ve spread around the world, carried by Spanish and French settlers.
In England they were considered an aristocratic vegetable, it was a favourite of Henry VIII possibly because he considered it an aphrodisiac!
Growing tips & Harvesting
Artichokes can be grown from seed or by plant division, but are usually propagated from rooted ‘sucker’ cuttings (roots that produce fresh shoots). Seed-raised plants usually have spiny buds and leaves, so it’s worth buying sucker cuttings of modern variety that are without spines. Look for ‘Violetta’ (purple-budded Italian variety) or ‘Purple Roscoff’ from Brittany.
Artichokes like warm well-drained light soils in a sheltered bed that has good drainage, young plants or sucker cuttings are planted out in spring after the last frost. Add a feed of nitrogen in the form of organic chicken pellets.
Famous artichoke-growing areas are Treguier in Brittany and Brindisi in Italy. They take about 80 days to harvest.
Storing & Preparation
Artichokes are always best when eaten fresh but will keep for 3-5 days in the fridge if stored properly. Sprinkle them with a little cold water, cover with a perforated bag and place in the coldest part of your fridge. Make sure they do not get cut before storing as this will reduce their storage time.
There are two options for preparation, depending on whether you are looking to eat the artichoke whole or eating the ‘heart’:
To eat whole, just cut off the pointed top (around 5cm/2in) and the thorny ends of the leaves. Make sure you have lemon juice to rub on the cut edges to prevent them from browning.
To get to the ‘heart’ of it, preparation takes a little bit of time but you will reap the rewards when finished! To start with, you will need to remove the tough outer leaves. Once you begin to expose the lighter yellow leaves, cut off around 5cm/2in of the pointed tip.
This should expose the beautiful purple petals at the centre of the artichoke. Use a teaspoon to remove these and then you’ll come to the ‘choke’ - a hairy and fibrous material that you really don’t want to choke on!
Use your teaspoon to scrape out the choke being careful not to remove any of the heart below. You can then slice off the stem and either leave whole, or cut in half
Our favourite Recipes
The artichoke heart can be used so many dishes but in my *humble* opinion, nothing quite beats simply steaming your artichoke whole and serving with a tasty vinaigrette (or how about a nice, garlicky aioli?!) to coat the fleshy end of the leaves with.
Place a pan of water on a medium-high heat to boil. Add a dash of wine, a generous pinch of salt, pepper and onion trimmings (if you have them). Leave to boil or steam for 30 mins. Once ready, you should be able to remove the leaves by pulling gently. Remove from the pan and leave upside down on a cooling rack, allowing all of the cooking liquid to drain out.
To make the dip:
1 tbsp smooth Dijon mustard
1/2 tbsp red wine vinegar, or to taste
1 small clove garlic
pinch of salt
freshly ground white pepper
75mls olive oil
125mls sunflower oil
Add the mustard, vinegar, garlic and seasoning into a small food processor and add a tablespoon of hot water. Blend until smooth, and then add the olive oil a little at a time. Make sure that all of the oil has incorporated before adding more. Next add the sunflower oil in the same way until you have added both oils. You are looking for a consistency like salad cream, so if the dressing is thick, add more hot water.
Although a little tricky and time-consuming to prepare, artichokes are utterly delicious and totally worth the effort.