Getting to the bottom of the artichoke
Did you know that until the 16th century, artichokes were forbidden to women because artichokes were considered to have an aphrodisiac affect?
From here in the Netherlands the Dutch introduced the artichoke to Britain in 16th century. Spanish and French settlers then introduced it to the USA in the 18th century.
In Istanbul's markets and bazaars, I have only seen artichokes as the trimmed meaty crowns sold in lemon-juiced bags. I only discovered the complete artichoke for my first time at a local market in Barcelona in 2010. No kidding!
I was with Philippe – Barcelona is the city where we started to date. He got a bundle of Catalan artichokes for dinner, steamed them and made his special sauce with mustard and balsamic vinegar. We ate them, starting from the outermost leaves until reaching and savoring the tender heart of the artichoke.
With its patch of thistle hairs in the middle, you have to be careful to remove them all before you can finally enjoy the heart of artichoke. I learned how to perform this operation with Philippe. This was all new to me because you do not deal with this part in Istanbul -- you get just the artichokes already trimmed and cleaned, either expertly by hand, or by using an impressive hand-cranked artichoke trimming machine.
In Izmir, 500 kilometers to the south, they do eat the complete bulb, but it is a different variety of artichoke.
This Turkish artichoke master in the video, Sercan, trims the globe in 15 seconds!
What is an artichoke?
The artichoke, or globe artichoke, is a cultivated perennial thistle, Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus, of the Asteraceae family (a family of flowering plants), native to the Mediterranean region, northwest Africa and the Canary Islands. Daisies, lettuce, chicory, chrysanthemums, safflower, dandelions, ragwort, and sunflowers are all in the same family with artichokes.
Artichokes can be green or greenish-purple, and come in different sizes from baby to jumbo.
According to the site whatcookingsamerica.net:
“Baby artichokes’ size comes from their location on the artichoke plant. They are picked from the lower parts of the artichoke plant where the plant fronds protect them from sun, in effect stunting their growth. The smallest ones are the most tender ones of all.”
We eat the artichoke's flowers while they are still buds. The immature flower head known as the heart is the most delectable part.
The cardoon, the artichoke's wild ancestor, has a number of culinary uses as well. Among them, interestingly, is as a vegetable rennet in the production of some varieties of sheep cheese in Portugal and western Spain, making these cheeses truly vegetarian-friendly, thanks to a thistle. One of them are Serra de Estrela and Azeitao in Portugal, and Torta del Casar in Spain.
Naming the artichoke
There is so much information on the Internet for the source of the aartichoke’s name. In the Arab world, artichokes are known as al-kharshof, Ardi-Shoki (شوكي) which means "ground thorny”. If the artichokes indeed originated in the Maghreb, the word could have certainly been of Arabic origin.
Artichokes are called “alcachofa” in Spanish and in Portuguese, “alcachofra.” Generally, words that begin with “al” in Spanish and Portuguese are of Arabic derivation. It seems reasonable that the artichoke's name may come from Arabic.
Traditional cultivars of the artichoke
Green color, big size: Vert de Laon, Camus de Bretagne, Castel (France), Green globe (U.S.A., South Africa).
Green color, medium size: Verde Palermo (Sicily), Blanca de Tudela (Spain), Argentina, Española (Chile), Blanc d'Oran (Algeria), Sakiz, Bayrampaşa (Turkey).
Purple color, big size: Romanesco, C3 (Italy).
Purple color, medium size: Violet de Provence (France), Brindisino, Catanese, Niscemese (Sicily), Violet d'Algerie (Algeria), Baladi (Egypt), Ñato (Argentina), Violetta di Chioggia (Italy).
Spined: Spinoso sardo e Ingauno (Sardinia), Criolla (Peru).
History of the artichoke
Artichokes and cardoons are thistles with an ancient history. We have been eating and enjoying them since the ancient Greek, Roman and Egyptian times.
Ancient Greeks and Romans considered artichokes an aphrodisiac. They also believed artichokes increased the chances of an expecting mother to give birth to a baby boy.
In the ninth century, Naples was the first place in Europe where artichokes were first cultivated, from where they then spread to the rest of Europe.
In the mid-16th century, Catherine de Medici arrived from Florence to France at the age of fourteen to marry King Henry II. She is credited with making artichokes famous in France. From France, artichokes spread to the Netherlands and England.
Artichokes arrived in the American colonies in the 18th century. They were grown in George Washington's garden. His wife Martha even had a recipe for them in her cookbook. Artichokes in Louisiana (20% of the US crop) were established by French immigrants in the 1800s while in California (80% of the US crop), the Spaniards introduced them in the Monterey area.
According to this website, here is the Greek myth for artichokes:
“According to the Greek myth, the source of the artichoke is a beautiful young woman named Cynara. One day when Zeus was visiting his brother Poseidon, he spotted Cynara bathing on the shore. If you’re at all familiar with Greek myths, you probably know where this is going. Zeus was smitten – as he always was – and he struck a deal with Cynara that he would make her a goddess so she could come back to live on Mount Olympus and be closer to him.
Cynara liked the arrangement at first (being a goddess has its perks), but she didn’t know anyone on Olympus, and she quickly became lonely and homesick, so she snuck back off to earth to visit her mother. Zeus was enraged – as he always was – and he cast Cynara off of Olympus. When she hit the ground, she became an artichoke plant. To this day the genus, Cynara, is named after her.”
In modern Greek the word for artichoke is αγκινάρα (ankinára). In my native language, Turkish, the word is “enginar,” which shows how our foods serve as a bridge.
Today, the main artichoke producers are Italy, Spain, France, Egypt and California, USA.
Artichokes in Turkey
Artichokes grow in Izmir, Bursa/Yalova, and Adana/Silifke in Turkey. There are two types of artichoke that grow in Turkey, the Sakiz and Bayrampaşa varieties. The first harvest is in April or May, with a later, second harvest in Izmir in the Aegean region of Turkey. You eat only the heart of the Bayrampaşa artichoke -- the remaining parts are not good eating. On the other hand the Sakiz variety is edible almost in its entirety, including the leaves.
The tradition way of selling artichokes in local markets is trimmed and cleaned, six or eight artichoke hearts (bottoms) in a lemon-juiced bag. All you need to do is drain that juice when you get home and add some fresh lemon juice so they do not turn dark before you cook them.
The traditional Turkish way of cooking artichokes is to braise the bottoms or crowns of meaty globe artichokes in olive oil with green peas, carrots, dill and lemon juice.
Any vegetable braised in a high-quality olive oil is a typical treat, especially in summer. You can enjoy them either at room temperature, or cold as small plates before your meal as an appetizer. You can keep these braised oil dishes 2-3 days in the fridge.
Health benefits of the artichoke
Artichokes are known as a liver-friendly vegetable since my mom sang their praises when I was a kid. She preached to my brother and me that we should eat them. This has stayed in my mind since my childhood. So yes, my mom is right.
Artichokes boost immunity and improve gut flora, easing digestion. They contain a powerful antioxidant flavonoid called silymarin, which is an effective liver protectant. Artichokes are high in fiber and antioxidants. Artichokes are used to treat insect and snake bite, skin itching, anemia, rheumatism and indigestion. They decrease the bad cholesterol in the body and act as an organ cleanser.
The bottom line
To me there is not one single way to enjoy eating artichokes – I embrace all cooking techniques.
My suggestion is whenever you find them fresh in the markets, buy them and eat them up, either by steaming them and preparing a French mustard and balsamic vinegar dressing for dipping the leaves, which is how I enjoy them most with my husband; OR cooking them the Turkish way, trimming them and enjoying the succulent artichoke bottoms braised in olive oil OR stuffing them with rice and raisins, as you might a green pepper dolma. I love them all!
Last month, I stuffed this Spanish artichoke with spring onions, fresh herbs, Turkish raisins, and basmati rice with a lemon garlic sauce and braised it for an hour. It was so delicious and meaty.