Artichoke - silly name but tastes nice!
Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus
We eat so many different plants but few seem to have as silly a name as this one. I suppose that goes with the way it is eaten and the parts that we eat. The plant is a thistle that originates from northern Africa. It has been in cultivation for well over 1000 years and is grown widely in most continents. It is most popular in the countries around the Mediterranean and is also eaten across the USA. Most of the American crop comes from California, and as is the way in US, the major producing region there, has named their town the Artichoke Centre of the World.
In Australia it is widely available in most supermarkets and green grocers, but like other odd veggies (celeriac, bulb fennel etc) most of us walk past. We are worried that we will buy this weird thing and it will end up going mouldy before we work out how to prepare it. The plants are also popular in the nurseries but more as an attractive garden perennial than as a tasty food source.
The Globe Artichoke (ie not Jerusalem Artichoke) is a member of the genus Cynara, which is part of the Asteraceae, with only about 10 species of thistle like plants that include Cynara cardunculus or Cardoon - an unusual vegetable from southern Europe. It is a non-animal substitute for rennet in cheese manufacture. In some harsh areas it is also becoming a source for vegetable oils and not surprisingly has become a bit weedy in Australia and California. The species name used to be C. scolymus but is now considered to be a variety of C. cardunculus.
As an ornamental perennial it makes a stunning show when in full bloom. It has large eye catching silver green foliage with impressive bright purple thistle like flowers. The growth habit is upright and dominant in the garden bed. It will generally grow for two to three seasons with most of the flowering in the second year. It is quite common in metropolitan gardens and unfortunately most people don't eat them. There are several cultivars in US that are propagated by cutting which are either smaller, earlier flowering or more cold tolerant. There is also a relatively new form that has an attractive purple colour to the flower bud.
Over the range of plants found in the home garden most parts of the plant are eaten. Some like the fruit or the leaves are common and some like the area between the roots and stem are not so common. In the case of the Artichoke it is the flower bud, which is unusual. Most of us know it as marinated artichoke hearts in olive oil which are usually eaten as a finger food or on an antipasto platter.
Cooking at home can be a bit of fun and the results are excellent if the buds are well prepared. Search the internet and you will find dozens of sites with lots of ways to cook them. The Italians have a huge array of recipes that come in three basic types. First is using the whole bud. This is easy to prepare and fun to eat - not ideal for a sit down formal dinner but great for a relaxed dinner party with friends. In this case simply cut the stem just below the base, cut off the top 2-3 cm of the bud and place in a steamer or oven pan. Then squeeze lemon juice and garlic infused olive oil over the top and steam for 10 or so minutes. If you use the oven pan place about 1 cm of water in the pan and bake for about 20 mins at a medium temperature. Either way check regularly and when the outer leaves start to fall away and are easy to pull off it is cooked.
Place the cooked buds in a shallow bowl with a discard bowl nearby. The outer layer of leaves are a bit tough and should be discarded. Once the first 6 or so are gone peel of the remainder and dip them in a mixture of olive oil, garlic, lemon juice and your favourite herbs. Then turn them with the outer side up and scrape over your teeth to remove the soft sweet flesh. As you get in further the leaves will have more soft flesh. The inner leaves are all soft, nutty and quite nice. In the centre is the fibrous choke which is not edible and should also be discarded. Below that is the real delicacy in the 'heart' which should be eaten slowly to get maximum enjoyment.
The second method is to remove all the outer leaves, the base and top, cut into quarters and then remove the choke. These 'hearts' can be baked, steamed, grilled or fried and then eaten hot or marinated and eaten whenever a good bottle of wine is open. The third method is to cut off the top of the bud then remove the inner leaves and the choke. This will leave a hollowed out flower ready to be stuffed with meat, crab, prawns of mixed veggies, then baked for about 20 mins.
As with most good plants Artichokes can also be made into teas and have some medicinal properties. Of course there is always someone who will find a way of making an alcoholic drink. This is a strong liqueur that is a popular aperitif in Italy.
With a name like this there is some debate on the etymology of the word Ártichoke'. Some say it is an anglicized form of the Arab phrase ardi shoki which means thorny ground. The more acceptable origin is from the Arabic word al-karshuf which then was translated to the Italian articiocco which then became artichoke.
As one of the oldest recorded foods it has many interesting stories. It has been a popular part of the Greek and Roman diets since several hundred years BC. Like most of these exotic plants it was at one point thought to be an aphrodisiac and was only allowed to be eaten by men. The Latin name is supposed to come from an old Greek fable about a young girl called Cynara who was very attractive but upset old Zeus who turned her into an Artichoke.
Whatever the story and however you choose to eat them they will give your taste buds a buzz and provide a great start to your next dinner party. Finally the first California Artichoke Queen was Marilyn Monroe in 1949 - not the most important award of her short life.