The Art of Artichokes

April 15, 2016

Growing up in an Italian family (yes, I am half Irish, but we were all about the Italian food…), artichokes were a staple of our diet. As a kid, I was so perplexed by people who joined us for a Sunday feast and were unsure of how to approach this gorgeous veggie. We dove into them, dragging the leaves across our teeth, enjoying the buttery flesh at the base of each leaf. My grandfather, who adored artichokes (the only vegetable I can remember him eating…), used to play the same trick on us kids week after week. We fell for it every time. He would finish his ‘choke and have the tender, juicy heart remaining on his dish. He’d lean back in his chair and pat his stomach and say, “I’m so full. I don’t think I can finish…” We would all clamor for the heart only to watch him pop it in his mouth and laugh.

Eating artichokes for me is about the ritual of family. I think they make us social as we sit around the table, pulling the leaves off and enjoying each morsel. I have found that artichokes provoke conversation (even if it’s just about how great they are…) and cause us to linger at the table longer.

But these babies are more than just social butterflies.

The name ‘artichoke’ comes from the northern Italian word ‘articiocco,’ which is a derivation of the word for pine cone, based on the look of the many layers of leaves. This perennial plant, in the thistle group of the sunflower family is believed to be native to the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands. The ‘vegetable’ that we eat is actually the bud of a large bush and if allowed to actually come to flower, would produce a violet blossom that’s about 7 inches in diameter.

With a history steeped in legend and myth, it’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the history of the artichoke. My favorite story is the one about Catherine di Medici, who is said to have adored artichokes, but at that time, women were forbidden to eat them as they stirred passion. So, our independent heroine married the king of France and took with her Italian cooking secrets, the fork (invented by Italians) and…you guessed it, the artichoke so that she could enjoy it freely.

Available year round, artichokes experience a peak season in both the spring and the fall, with almost 100% of the artichokes we enjoy coming from California. Those cultivated in Italy, Spain and France tend to be consumed in their home countries. When we travel in Italy, artichokes are sold at local markets in bunches, like a bouquet with long stems (that are composed of the same tender flesh as the heart).

Artichokes are more than just sexy fodder for legend. A true super food (and you know how silly I think that term is…), these thistle buds pack a nutritional punch. The USDA found that a serving of artichokes far outpaced many of the other foods we associate with antioxidant density, meaning they help us fight cancer and other degenerative disease and help us to age gracefully. Blueberries, grapes, red wine, dark chocolate, even broccoli were left in the dust, so to speak.

Dietary fiber content showed artichokes outpacing most other foods we associate with high fiber content, from carrots to many whole grains and beans.

Artichokes aid in digestion due to a compound called ‘cynarin’ which is said to increase the production of bile, thereby moving food through the body with ease.

They can help lower cholesterol by as much as 20% with regular consumption of the vegetable or through taking artichoke leaf extract.

Artichokes provide about 12% of our required Vitamin K which is a key nutrient to avoiding the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Maybe that’s why my elderly Italian relatives never forgot a thing…not a story, a joke, an embarrassing incident from my childhood or a slight!

Artichokes, as well as artichoke extracts from the leaves and stems of the plant have been historically recommended for liver health. Research seems to show that artichokes have qualities that can protect the liver and reduce blood lipids (like cholesterol).  It all seems to come down to a rich concentration of the powerful phytonutrients in artichokes, cynarin and silymarin.

Artichokes can help us control our weight.

Wait…what? These sexy buds can help us maintain a healthy weight?

Yup, (unless you are stuffing them with cheese…then, not so much). It turns out that artichokes are a rich source of manganese, used in the metabolism of cholesterol, amino acids, and fatty acids, making it absolutely essential in enabling the body to efficiently process the nutrients in the foods we eat. If you are trying to lose weight, optimizing your metabolism should be one of the top priorities. It’s great to know that the manganese content of artichokes makes a delicious tool to add to your arsenal.

I hear you, though. You take one look at these prickly buds and wonder what the heck to do with them. Wonder no more. Here’s my easy how-to video on cleaning artichokes followed by my favorite way to cook them!

How to Clean Artichokes

Whole Poached Artichokes