Artichokes, the Perfect Spring Treat

Whether you’ve never had an artichoke, don’t know how to prepare or eat one, or are already an expert, now is the time to enjoy since they are in peak season from March to May.

Artichokes are a Mediterranean food related to the thistle and are delicious and fun to eat. They’re easy to prepare and are an excellent source of nutrients like dietary magnesium, fiber, and the trace mineral chromium. They’re also a very good source of vitamins A and C, folic acid, biotin, niacin, riboflavin, thiamine, potassium, the trace mineral manganese, and a carbohydrate that’s in the form of insulin. These properties make them healthy for the whole family including those watching their calories and blood sugar. Fresh artichokes contain polysaccharide which is a carbohydrate handled by the body differently than other sugars, making them low in calories and extremely beneficial to diabetics because the type of insulin they produce has been shown to improve blood sugar control in diabetes. Throughout history artichokes have been known to treat liver disease, lower cholesterol, and are considered an aphrodisiac food.

There are many varieties of artichokes, ranging in color from olive green to deep red, though the Globe variety is most commonly found in supermarkets. Commonly known as a vegetable, the artichoke is actually a flower bud, which when allowed to blossom, is violet blue in color. Artichokes come in a variety of sizes—the biggest, perfect for steaming or boiling, while baby artichokes (often much cheaper) are a delicious and tender addition to almost any recipe. When buying artichokes, as with any produce, fresh is best. Choose artichokes that are tightly closed and seem heavy for their size with few discolored or shriveled leaves. Rub the leaves together; if they squeak, they’re fresh. Once you get your artichokes home, keep them in a sealed bag in the refrigerator to prevent discoloration.

75% of the 3 million cartons of domestically-grown artichokes are grown in Castroville, California, the self-proclaimed Artichoke Center of the World since 1959 with an annual mid-May festival to celebrate the artichoke. Have your own celebration by enjoying some steamed artichokes petals at home. Dip them in butter or your favorite sauce for an added treat and you’ll be hooked!

How to Cook an Artichoke

Once you’ve bought your artichoke, preparation is easy. Start by trying the classic steamed or boiled approach and then you can experiment with different methods and recipes as you get more comfortable.

  1. Wash the artichoke in cold water.
  2. Remove any discolored or shriveled lower petals.
  3. Using a sharp stainless steel knife (to prevent discoloration) trim the stem close to the artichoke’s base.
  4. Cut off the top quarter of petals if you prefer so the tips don’t poke your fingers.
  5. To preserve the vegetable’s color, though not necessary, you can dip it in acidified water prior to cooking (one quart of water mixed with one tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar). You can also add a touch of sugar and salt or herbs to the boiling water to obtain a better flavor.
  6. Steam (place on rack above an inch or two of boiling water) or boil (add to pot with enough boiling water to completely cover). Cook until you can pull off a petal near the center with ease—25 to 40 minutes depending on the size of the artichoke. Large ones may take 60 minutes but are much “meatier”

How to Eat an Artichoke

The artichoke is like a delicacy that can be consumed alone or with a simple dipping sauce to complement it and make a great appetizer, especially for kids. This spiny vegetable can be an intimidating presence on the dinner table if you’ve never had one whole but the following tips can help even the novice artichoke eater enjoy the wonderfully nutty flavor of this unique plant like an expert:

  • Pull off outer petals one by one, dip the thicker base into the sauce of your choice, and bite or scrape the succulent pulp off the inside of the petal with your teeth. Discard the rest of the petal. This is especially fun for children.
  • When you get to the heart of the artichoke, spoon or cut away the fuzzy portion in the center, cut the remainder of the heart (including any portion of the attached stem) into bite-size portions, dip, and savor!

Final Notes on Artichokes

Once you’ve mastered the basic preparation and eating techniques, allow yourself to get creative. Artichokes can be marinated and grilled, stuffed and fried, sautéed with meat and vegetables as a topping for pasta, roasted, braised, added to salads, or creamed in soups. If you prefer to keep things simple, try varying your dipping sauces for steamed artichokes. For a change of pace from butter, homemade mayonnaise-based sauces mixed with fresh herbs, spices or garlic and lemon are a nice complement.However you enjoy your artichokes, feel good about serving them to your entire family for a fun, healthy appetizer or main course this spring.