According to an Aegean legend, the first artichoke was a lovely young girl. The god Zeus was visiting his brother Poseidon one day when, as he surfaced from the sea, his eye caught on a entrancing young human woman. She did not seem alarmed by the presence of a god, so Zeus seized the opportunity to seduce her. He became enamored with the girl, named Cynara. Zeus was so enthralled with her that he decided to make her a goddess so that she could be nearer to him on Mount Olympia. However, Cynara soon missed her mother and grew homesick. She crept back to the world of humans to see her mother. After she returned, Zeus discovered this lowly human behavior. Infuriated, he hurled her back to earth and transformed her into the plant we know today as the artichoke. The artichoke was eventually attributed to being effective in securing the birth of boys and a delicacy with Roman upper classes. Wealthy Romans enjoyed artichokes prepared in honey and vinegar and seasoned with cumin to preserved them for winters.
Beginning about 800 A.D., North African Moors began cultivating artichokes in the area of Granada, Spain. Another Arab group, the Saracens, became identified with artichokes in Sicily. This may explain why the English word artichoke is derived from the Arab, “al’qarshuf” rather than from the Latin, “cynara.” Between 800 and 1500, it’s likely that the artichoke was genetically improved on in monastery gardens into the delectable plant we recognize today.
The artichoke is in the thistle group of the sunflower family and is believed to be native to the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands. In full growth, the plant spreads to cover an area about six feet in diameter and reaches a height of three to four feet. The part that is edible is actually the plant’s flower bud. If allowed to flower, the blossoms measure up to seven inches in diameter and are a beautiful violet-blue color. Artichokes are good for your liver and libido, the artichoke is also high in fiber and calcium.
Buying and storing artichokes
One medium to large artichoke will yield approximately 2 ounces of edible flesh. Fresh artichokes feel heavy for the size and will have a squeaking sound if squeezed. Squeezing an artichoke is a great way to test for ripeness and freshness. Choose artichokes that are deep in color with tight leaves. Beware of browning leaves, it can indicate older artichokes or frost damage. However, fall and winter artichokes may be darker or bronze-tipped or have a whitish, blistered appearance due to exposure to light frost. This is called “winter-kissed.” Look for tender green on the inside of petals. Many consider these frosted artichokes to be the most tender with intense flavor. Avoid artichokes that are wilting, drying or have mold.
To store fresh artichokes, sprinkle them with a little water and refrigerate in an airtight plastic bag. Do no wash before storing. They should last a week when stored properly. If you are storing just the hearts, make sure you store them in a mixture of water and lemon juice to keep from oxidizing (turning brown).
Steamed Artichokes with clarified butter and sea salt
Simple but classic!
2 large, whole artichokes
2Tbls unsalted butter, cut into slivers
4Tbls unsalted butter, melted
Sea salt (you can use the citrus sea salt from my fried oyster recipe!) to taste, for light dipping
Crushed black pepper to taste
Steam artichokes in a pan with enough water to just cover the bottom. Bring to a rolling boil on high heat. Trim artichoke stems and the tough outer leaves. Tuck the slivered butter in the leaves throughout the two artichokes.
Place steamer basket in the pot of boiling water and place both artichokes in the steam basket, stem down. Cover pot and steam artichokes for about 20 minutes or until tender.
In the meantime, melt the butter and arrange both the melted butter and the salt in small dipping bowls.
When the artichokes become tender, remove from heat and place on serving plates. Sprinkle with ground black pepper and serve with melted butter and salt.
Dip the leaves (thick end) in the butter and salt and sort of scrape the meat off with your teeth. When you get to the heart, scrape off the furry part with a spoon and dip in the butter and salt. Enjoy!!