LAKE COUNTY, Calif. To celebrate the peak season of artichokes, I thought it would be fun to start today column with an ode to this nice fare.
Oh, the thorny globe of the humble leaf
Grown on the steep ocean rocks
You make us with your inner heart
Thorns shake their fingers like an arrow
We ask you for your delicious meat
And I love you when you are on our plate
We dig through the leaves for our reward,
That soft disk that protects thorns
Oh, artichokes, how please!
With oil, butter, or mayonnaise
We peel a leaf, we take a bite
(What’s left behind looks like a picture!)
Oh, artichoke, it’s worth the time
You should eat your sublime portions
You make us a big party
By heart, and every leaf
Groaning aside, Artichoke is a vegetable worthy of an ode, don’t you think? It is ultimately mysterious as well as metaphorical and unique.
As for the mystery, who ate the first one? What prompted that curious spirit to look at the thorns and discover delicious flesh inside?
Its prickly leaves and soft heart evoke endless metaphors:
You can not judge a book by its cover.
Good things take time.
Life unfolds like the leaves of an artichoke.
One has to dig deep for a hidden treasure.
A prickly exterior denies a soft heart inside.
Patience wins everyone.
And its uniqueness speaks for itself. There is no other vegetable that he likes very much.
The peak season for artichokes is from March to May, and almost 100 percent of the American artichoke crop is grown in California, with Monterey County specifically Castroville and surrounding areas accounting for an overwhelming 75 percent of it. Apparently the temperate coastal climate of that area and its foggy plains predict well for its growth.
Not surprisingly, Castroville, which started hosting its artichoke festival in 1956, has been called the artichoke capital of the world.
And the city has an extra claim to fame, if lesser known: Marilyn Monroe, then a little-known starlet, was crowned artichoke queen Castrovilles in 1948.
Artichoke plants are large, with prickly, arched, slender leaves that spread up to six feet in diameter and stems that grow to about three or four feet in height.
The edible artichoke is officially recognized as a global artichoke, and comes in a number of varieties in different sizes and shades of green and purple.
The part we eat is actually an immature bud that develops in different sizes depending on which part of the stalk is located. The largest artichoke grows at the top of the stalk, the middle ones grow from the lateral shoots, and the infant (or small) artichokes grow at the base of the stalk hidden in the leaves.
The baby artichoke is fully ripe, but of a smaller size. The fuzzy part near the heart does not develop on them, making it easier to prepare.
If the buds are allowed to ripen, they bloom in a purple, thorn-like bloom, suitable for this member of the sunflower family thorn group.
Artichokes grow wild in Southern Europe and North Africa and were first created for cultivation in Sicily, Italy. They were later cultivated by African Moors near Granada, Spain in about 800 AD
It was the Spanish settlers who brought them to California in the 1600s, but they did not achieve popularity here until more than three centuries later, in the 1920s.
They have been mentioned in Greek and Roman literature since 77 AD. In fact, shortly before his death, Pliny the Elder, a frequently cited Roman author and naturalist, said that they were one of the monstrosities of the earth. It is clear that he was not a fan.
Artichoke contains more than nine powerful antioxidants that contribute to our health in a variety of ways, from promoting cardiovascular health to inhibiting the growth of cancer cells to help regenerate liver tissue.
They are also full of fiber, vitamin C, magnesium and potassium.
The best artichokes are globes that are heavy for their narrow leaf size. Do not choose those that look dry or become brown. If the leaves are open, it means that the Artichoke has passed its peak.
Artichokes can be stored in the refrigerator in a plastic bag, unwashed, for up to four days.
Before use, wash the artichokes well, and if they grow at home, be sure to knock them upside down in the sink. This helps remove any criteria that may have made the leaves their home.
Artichokes are usually steamed, but they can be boiled, grilled or roasted. If you use the latter two methods, I recommend boiling them first to soften the leaves and then finishing on the grill or in the oven to fill in the rich, smoky aroma that these methods give.
When evaporating, the top half inch or more can be cut to remove prickly thorns and, for the same reason, the tops of each leaf can be trimmed with scissors. I often cut the artichokes in half to reduce the cooking time. I clean the fuzz near the heart before getting into the steamer.
Artichoke stems are delicious and should not be completely removed before cooking. A few inches can be left intact and easily peeled.
A clove of garlic, bay leaves, or lemon slices (even all three) can be added to water that evaporates artichokes to give flavor.
Artichokes can be served cold or hot and are often accompanied by mayonnaise (usually when served cold), melted butter or olive oil filled with garlic. I especially love them with a mayonnaise sauce, freshly squeezed lemon juice and fresh dill.
In Italy and parts of France, raw artichoke hearts are shaved and thrown into salads with a vinaigrette sauce and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese shavings.
In Sicily, a mixture that includes bread crumbs, garlic, olive oil, anchovies and cheese is stuffed between the fragments (the official term for the leaves of an artichoke) and then baked in the oven.
Poles cook artichoke hearts in white wine and garlic, while Moroccans roast them with lamb.
I have to say that the most unusual use of artichokes I have seen is in Italian liqueur. This bitter aperitif is made with 13 different herbs, the most prevalent being artichoke.
Today’s recipe, artichoke heart soup cream, is a spin on one of the Food Network’s Giada De Laurentis. Its delicate aroma and soft structure go well with a heart salad with Roma lettuce tossed in a simple vinaigrette.
If frozen artichoke hearts are not available, canned or home-cooked ones can be used. (Just make sure the canned variety is not marinated.) If you prefer not to use cream, plain yogurt can be substituted, or add an extra potato and discard the cheesecake all together.
As for my odes, I may have broken some labels of poetry through its creation. According to thinkquest.org, Oda is a poem written for a specific occasion or theme. They are usually dignified and more serious as a form than other forms of poetry. Unfortunately, today’s society has significantly less respect for honesty, morality and dignity. Modern ode include sarcastic poems on a variety of topics, including Velcro and vegetables.
I hope you forgive me. At least mine was not sarcastic; I meant every word.
Artichoke heart soup cream
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 leeks, only white part, well washed and chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 small potato, peeled and chopped
1 (8 or 10 ounce) pack frozen, thawed artichoke hearts
2 glasses able of your choice
Freshly ground black pepper
– cup of heavy cream
Heat the olive oil in a heavy, large saucepan over medium heat.
Add the leeks and potatoes and cook for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.
Stir in the garlic and cook for another minute.
Add the artichokes, juice, salt and pepper and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
From the heat, use a hand-held blender to clean the soup.
Add the whipped cream and mix again to combine.
Taste and arrange spices, if necessary, and heat to serving temperature.
Makes about four servings.
Esther Oertel is a passionate home writer and cook from a family of chefs. She grew up in a restaurant, where she started creating recipes at an early age. Shes taught culinary lessons at a variety of places in Lake County and previously wrote the Veggie Girl column for Lake County News. I recently sell giving culinary courses at Sur La Table in Santa Rosa. She lives in Middletown.