It's top of the artichoke harvesting season way out in California. While shopping in the produce department recently, I observed that they had made the pilgrimage from West Coast to Best Coast. Neatly displayed, they resembled emerald jewels of natural perfection.
Indeed, the artichoke is one of the most intriguing and beautiful vegetables to ever come out of Mother Nature's bountiful garden.
Although the French have adopted the artichoke as their own, this thistle-like vegetable was first cultivated in Italy around the middle of the 15th century and gradually was introduced to other European countries. There is evidence in Greek art and history that the artichoke was enjoyed in that region of the Mediterranean during ancient times. The French brought the artichoke to North America when they settled in Louisiana and the Spaniards brought them to California.
The section of California around Castroville has an ideal climate for growing artichokes. It is one part of the state that is cooled by a combination of ocean breezes and thick fogs, on which the vegetable thrives. The first artichokes were grown commercially here about 1941 and since then the crop brings in about $40 million dollars to the growers and pickers in the area.
The peak season for Castroville artichokes is May but the development of hearty species makes them available year-round. Each May, there is an Artichoke Festival where thousands are treated to some creative ways to prepare and enjoy artichokes. At one time, the festival was held in September but aficionados, although admitting that the summer 'chokes are adequate; maintain that it takes a touch of frost for the 'chokes to be at their best.
There are three kinds of artichokes: the true, globe or French artichoke, which is what the Castroville festival is all about, the Jerusalem artichoke, and the Chinese or Japanese artichoke, which is also called Stachys. The Jerusalem artichoke is a tuber and the French or California variety is a member of the thistle family. This thorny vegetable belongs to the thistle group of the sunflower family.
When we eat an artichoke, we actually eat a flower bud. The bigger buds are the "terminal" ones at the end of long central stems, and smaller ones are lower on the stem. The plants, perennials, are propagated by taking root sections and replanting in new fields.
The true artichoke is the most popular of the three. The part eaten is the bud of the flower, which is cut off at the point where it joins the stem.
One culinary source suggests that the name artichoke comes from England. When a thief was hanged it was known as a "vegetable dinner." In case you don't get it: "a hearty choke." Actually the name derived from the Italian "articiocco and "archiciocco." Another theory is that the name may be traced to its cone-like shape. No matter; whatever the origin, the artichoke is one of our most delicious and fascinating vegetables.
Not only is the artichoke fun to look at and wonderful to eat, but it also has healing powers, according to the Italians and French. At the beginning of the 18th century, Louis Lemery wrote in Treatise on Food: "Artichokes suit elderly people at all times, and those of a phlegmatic and melancholy disposition." It was also reputed to be an aphrodisiac, and women were forbidden to eat them. However, that maverick Catherine de Medici encouraged their cultivation in France and their consumption by women as well as men.
When selecting an artichoke, choose one that is firm and heavy, with stiff, tightly packed leaves that are brilliant green, blue-green or violet. The colors will vary depending on the species. Because the artichoke is a flower bud, open leaves indicate that it is overripe, and will therefore be hard and have too large a choke, the soft flowery part. When it has been kept too long the tops of the scales go black.
To cook the artichokes, select one for each person and cut off the stalks level with the leaves. Remove the hard bottom leaves and cut about 1 inch off those at the top, using scissors. Wash them in several waters and place them base down in a saucepan of fast-boiling water, slightly salted and sharpened with a little vinegar or lemon juice; a small bunch of herbs may be added to give flavor. Cook for about 30 to 45 minutes or until the leaves can be pulled out easily.
The correct way to eat an artichoke is to pull out the leaves one at a time with the fingers, dip each in the sauce and eat the soft end. When the center is reached, removed the choke and eat the bottom, which is the chief delicacy, with a knife and fork.
There are several ways to serve artichokes. They are a spectacular dish and add dash and sophistication to the simplest meal. California cooks are constantly competing for accolades at the Artichoke Festival with new and delicious way to prepare them. In past years, the festival has inspired artichoke preparations that included soups, fried artichokes, steamed artichokes, artichoke salad, and such exotic creations as artichoke bread, pickled artichokes and, yes, we are reluctant to report ... artichoke ice cream.
I cannot guarantee that the artichoke has as much aphrodisiac powers as ... say Viagra, but they are high in minerals and vitamins including calcium while being extremely low in fat and cholesterol.
The artichoke itself has inspired all sorts of kitschy knick-knacks such as salt and pepper shakers, T-shirts, lamp bases shaped like ... you-know-what, artichoke plates, hats in the shape of an artichoke and other somewhat outrageous but fun items.
If you can't resist a quick trip out to Castroville for the big festivities, be sure to plan on eating at The Giant Artichoke, a restaurant shaped like a huge artichoke.
Fettuccine with artichokes
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon flour
3/4 cup chicken stock
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 cup minced fresh parsley
8 cooked artichoke hearts, quartered (use fresh, canned or frozen)
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 pound ham or prosciutto, slivered, optional
1/4 pound mushrooms, sliced, sautéed, optional
1/2 pound fettuccine, cooked and drained
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
In a large skillet, heat oil and butter and stir in flour until smooth. Add stock, garlic, lemon juice and parsley. Stir over medium heat 5 minutes. Add artichoke hearts, cheese, ham, mushrooms and salt and pepper if desired. Cover and cook over low heat 5 to 7 minutes. Toss with fettuccine. Additional grated Parmesan may be sprinkled on individual servings. Serves 4 and is easily doubled.
Dip for artichokes
A delicious dipping sauce for steamed artichokes.
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, crushed
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon toasted, ground sesame seed
1/4 to 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons plain yogurt
1 tablespoon mayonnaise
In a small bowl, combine all ingredients except artichokes. Mix well. Serve mixture as a dip for artichokes.
Redfish with artichokes and mushrooms
This recipe comes from Commander's Palace in New Orleans. If redfish is not available, use grouper, pompano, sole or any other mild fish.
2 teaspoons Creole seafood seasoning (recipe below)
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 medium eggs, lightly beaten
1 cup milk
6 redfish fillets, about 6 ounces each
1/2 cup (is stick) butter
Artichoke mushroom sauce
1-1/2 sticks butter
1-1/2 cups cooked, sliced artichoke bottoms, fresh, canned or frozen
1-1/2 cups fresh mushrooms, quartered
3 clove garlic, minced
1-1/2 cups minced green onions
3/4 cup good quality dry, white wine
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Garnish: Lemon slices and sprigs of parsley
In a large mixing bowl combine seafood seasoning and flour. Beat eggs and milk until well blended. Dredge the fish in the seasoned flour, then in the egg-milk mixture and again in the flour. Set aside. In a large skillet over medium high heat, heat the butter and add fish and sauté quickly until golden brown on both sides, turning only one. Remove fish to a warm serving platter and keep warm.
To make the sauce: Melt half the butter in a sauté pan. Add artichoke bottoms, mushrooms, garlic, green onions, wine and lemon juice. Simmer, uncovered until liquid is reduced by one third or until you have about 1/2 cup. Add remaining butter and cayenne pepper. Stir gently over low heat until butter is just melted and sauce is creamy. To serve: place a fillet on each warmed plate. Top with sauce and garnish with a slice of lemon and parsley. Serve immediately. Serves 6 to 8.
Creole Seafood Seasoning
1/3 cup salt
1/4 cup granulated or powdered garlic
1/4 cup freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons thyme
2 tablespoons oregano
1/3 cup paprika
3 tablespoons granulated or powdered onion
Combine all ingredients and mix thoroughly. Pour into a large glass jar and seal airtight. Keep indefinitely and may be used on all kinds of fish and other seafood. If you do not like the intense flavor of black pepper, reduce to 1/8 cup or to taste.
Q: We are in our summer cottage on Cape Cod and have access to wonderful lobsters. My son and his wife are coming for a visit and have requested Lobster Newburg. Please provide a recipe since I have never fixed this dish.
— Madeleine Potter, Chatham, Mass.
A: I am green (or should I say lobster-red) with envy.
6 tablespoons butter
3 cups cooked lobster, cut into 2-inch pieces
1/3 cup Madeira or dry sherry
1-1/2 cups heavy cream
5 egg yolks
¾ teaspoon salt or to taste
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
½ teaspoon fresh lemon juice
6 patty shells *
Paprika (optional for color)
In a large enameled or stainless-steel skillet, melt the butter over moderate heat. Add the lobster meat and stirring constantly, sauté for about a minute. Pour in the Madeira or sherry and 1 cup of the heavy cream and stirring, bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to its lowest pint and, still stirring, cook for about 2 minutes. In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks into the remaining ½ cup of cream. Beat into them 4 tablespoons of the simmering lobster sauce, and then, in a slow stream, pour the mixture back into the skillet, stirring constantly. Cook over moderate heat until the sauce thickens, but under no circumstances allow it to boil or it will curdle. Season with the salt, cayenne and lemon juice. Serve immediately in patty shells or see below for alternatives. Sprinkle the lobster Newburg lightly with paprika, if you like. Serves 6.
*The lobster Newburg may also be served on beds of steamed rice or on hot buttered toast points.
Doris Reynolds is the author of “When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet was Fried” and “Let’s Talk Food.” They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available is a 4-part DVD, “A Walk Down Memory Lane with Doris Reynolds.” Contact Doris Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org