The artichoke (alcachofas in Spanish) is a vegetable that belongs to the Asterales family, which includes lettuce, endives, escarole, etc. It is a perennial thistle that can grow from 4 to 6 feet in height with large silver-green leaves.
A Long and Interesting History
The artichoke is native to North Africa and is primarily cultivated in countries around the Mediterranean Sea, such as Spain, Italy, France and North Africa. After Italy, Spain is the largest producer of artichokes, growing about 30% of the world’s supply and is the major exporter. Several different varieties are grown around the world and cultivation is grouped geographically. In Spain, the type that is most widely available is called Blanca de Tudela.
The varieties vary slightly in shape, size, and color (green and/or purple). It is generally harvested in autumn and winter in Spain, although artichokes can be found in markets through spring. In the United States, California produces almost 100% of the artichoke crop and they are sold in April and May, and in some places in late summer.
Here's an interesting (and controversial) historical fact: During the 17th century, the artichoke was thought to be an aphrodisiac and women were not allowed to eat them. Fortunately, that myth is no longer believed.
Shopping and Preparing Artichokes
When shopping for artichokes, choose ones that are heavy and have closed or compact leaves. The color should be green with a few brown spots or blemishes. If an artichoke’s leaves are opened, it is not fresh and is beginning to dry out. Once purchased, store in the produce drawer of your refrigerator in a plastic bag and use within 3 to 4 days.
Artichokes dry out and the leaves quickly become tough. In Spain, it is easy to find smaller baby artichokes that are far more tender, tastier and easier to cook. In the U.S., the larger globe artichoke is the most common, although baby artichokes are becoming more prominent in larger supermarket chains.
When preparing artichokes, it is important to trim the stem, remove the tough outer leaves and trim the ends of the leaves. Since the cut edges turn brown quickly, rub edges with half of a fresh lemon to prevent discoloration. Once cooked, they should be eaten within 24 hours.