Friday, January 29, 2010


I had never seen, nor heard of, an artichoke until I moved to New Orleans in 1970. The artichoke just wasn't a vegetable found on the Midwestern table. I learned to love them as I found them on Rampart Street in the French Quarter, in the refrigerated dairy case, stuffed with bread crumbs, parmesan and pecorino cheeses, and chopped spicy sausage or shrimp. Cold, room temperature, warm - it didn't matter. They were delicious and each leaf came away with a big chunk of the stuffing. The center was a gold mine of stuffing and tender artichoke heart.
I like artichokes simply boiled and served with a side of butter, mayonnaise or aioli. Plant them and forget them until they start to send up their flowers. Then harvest before the bloom opens and you have an artichoke for your table. The plants are perennial in our climate.

Artichokes are easy to grow if you have a lot of space available and a temperate climate. The plants themselves are quite large and need about three feet between plans for vigorous growth. They send down a deep tap root that enables them to survive drought - so they don't do particularly well in containers. If you have driven by the artichoke fields south of Castroville, then you know that the plants thrive in a cool, coastal climate with frequent fog. Artichokes do not thrive in hot, sunny and dry locations.
Early in the spring, the plants send up large stalks with the flower bud that we call the 'choke' on top. The first ones are the largest and subsequent stalks present smaller blooms. It's important to harvest them before they begin to open if you plan on eating them.
If you have planted the artichokes for their knock-your-socks-off purple blooms, then let the plants march to the beat of their own drummer, and you will have amazing flowers soon. The flowers can be dried for exotic flower arrangements.
The utter freshness of your own artichoke is reason enough to grow then plant.

Green Globe is the classic artichoke and the one we typically find in grocery stores and the farmers' markets. they can be grown as an annual in colder climates or as a perennial where winters do not bring freezing temperatures. Violetto is similar, but has a purple cast to the artichoke and the stem. This is the plant that can be found depicted in early Italian Renaissance paintings.
Violetto matures later then the Green Globe and is smaller. We have found the Violetto be be a little less reliable from seed, so you may end up with a wild thistle that has few if any artichokes. It is worth the risk, though, because this is the most tender of chokes.

The plants do best in a temperate clime and can be stressed by heat and dryness. if you have a warm sunny location and, like most of us, no rain during the summer months, this is a plant you should water occasionally and deeply. The best soil is sandy and well-drained.

If you plant your seedlings in late fall, you can expect a harvest in spring. Commercial growers plant to get two harvests, with a second in late fall. Many believe that artichokes that have experienced a frost, develop a better flavor.

If you don't load your choke with stuffing, butter and mayonnaise, you are eating a nutrient dense vegetable with only 25 calories. The vegetable is high in fiber, vitamin C and folate. Artichokes have no fat and no cholesterol.

100 Vegetables and Where They Came From by William Woys Weaver

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