Okie dokie artichoke fans your time has come! The markets are featuring my favorite vegetable at their peak. Artichokes are a huge part of my culinary consciousness. I have so many fond memories of enjoying artichokes thanks to my grandmother Pearl Agnes Mills. My Nana was born in “Hangtown” in 1900 to true California pioneers. She was living and working in San Francisco when she met and married my Grandfather, eventually moving to the peninsula to raise their family. Artichokes were such a staple in her kitchen that I think we took them for granted. When my mother and sister moved to Texas, I had a required list of staples to bring with me on every trip I took to visit them. This list consisted of sourdough bread, salami, and artichokes. That was 30 years ago and I am happy to say that artichokes are now available there. But, it seemed like for a long time that they were only a unique regional treat.
The history of artichokes in California reads like a novel. They were originally brought to California by the French and Spaniards. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that they began to be commercially grown. In 1922, Andrew Molera, a landowner in Monterey county, leased his lands to Italian farmers and he encouraged them to grow artichokes. Things got a little crazy when Ciro “Whitey” Terranova, a member of the New York mafia, muscled in. Ciro, (aka “The Artichoke King”) purchased all the artichokes coming from California creating a monopoly. He then began selling them at a 30-40% profit in New York. He terrorized distributors and merchants and even attacked artichoke fields from Montara to Pescadero hacking up fields in the dead of night with machetes. These violent “artichoke wars” even prompted Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to declare the sale and possession of artichokes illegal! Alas, the ban only lasted a week, as it turned out Mayor La Guardia loved artichokes too much. Castroville, Ca is the artichoke capital and home to the annual artichoke festival. One of its claims to fame was the first artichoke queen crowned in 1948, Norma Jean Baker, who later became Marilyn Monroe. California grows nearly 100% of the commercially grown artichokes in the USA, with 80% coming from Monterey County.
There are many ways to prepare and serve artichokes. My favorite way to eat them is steamed, served cold or room temperature with Best Foods Mayonaise. The most common variety in the bay area is the “Globe” variety. When looking for artichokes in the spring, don’t be discouraged by the brown flakey appearance. At this time of year they are usually “frost kissed”. Their unavoidable encounter with the cold temperatures affects their appearance, but not the flavor. Anyone in the know will tell you that it actually improves the flavor, imparting a more intense nutty flavor. When you are done cooking them it doesn’t show anyway. You will want to look for one that is very round and with very tight leaves. Squeeze it, you should hear it squeak, and it should be firm. About an inch and a half of the stem in edible and tasty so when you trim them prior to cooking you can leave that much of the stem intact (unless you want to have then sit up for presentation). I like to remove the thorny tips of the leaves before cooking.
- 4 large globe artichokes
- 4 cloves of garlic, pealed and crushed
- 4 teaspoons olive oil
- 4 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
- Take a sharp knife, cut about the top 1 inch off the top, and then using a pair of scissors trim the top ¼ inch or so from the top of each leaf. Wash them well in cold running water.
- Add the garlic to the water under the steamer basket. Place the artichokes in the steamer basket, stems down.
- Drizzle each artichoke with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
- Steam until cooked tender or when a sharp knife easily pierces the bottom.
If you are still intimidated about preparing artichokes, or if you want to find some more elegant preparations, I can recommend a couple sites. “Ocean Mist” is the largest artichoke grower in California, and they have a great web site that contains lots of recipes and videos on how to prepare and eat them. You can find them here. I also came across a great blog, dedicated exclusively to artichokes. Michael lives in Turin, Italy and has written a beautiful and informative blog that is a must for any artichoke lover. You can find a link to the artichoke blog here. Enjoy.