stuffed artichoke from eat-spin-run-repeat.com

stuffed artichoke from eat-spin-run-repeat.com

The appetizer for the first dinner I ate in New York City was an artichoke baked with Parmesan, crumbs, and olive oil.  It was the first time I remember eating an artichoke (although I must surely have eaten some anonymous slimy dip in the 80s).  It was delicious!  Artichokes are still one of my favorite foods and they still remind me of how exciting it was to be in New York for the first time. But personal recollections aside, what is an artichoke?  The answer is as amazing and unexpected as the vegetable itself.

A field of artichokes

A field of artichokes

The first time I tried to cook an artichoke, I bought a couple of likely specimens and included them with my grocery purchase:  the poor teenage grocery clerk grabbed them from the conveyor belt like they were tomatoes and then screamed. It turns out that artichokes are a sort of thistle: they have sharpened spikes on the edges of their leaves (I’m really sorry the clerk hurt her hands:  I would have warned her if I had only known she was unfamiliar with artichokes).  Domestic artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) are a variety of cardoons–wild thistle flowers which are native to Italy, Spain, and North Africa.  Cardoons are part of the aster family (along with daisies, scottish thistles, and sunflowers) and were eaten by humans in prehistory.  It is unclear whether the Greeks and Romans domesticated the spiky plants (although they certainly knew of cardoons), however by the middle ages Muslim farmers were breeding the vegetables to be bigger and tastier.

The Wild Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

The Wild Cardoon (Cynara cardunculus)

Cardoons are hardy perennial flowers which grow up to 1.5 meters (60 inches) in height and produce purple flowers from a large spiky capitulum.  The capitulum is the portion of the artichoke which we eat.  If it is allowed to sprout into a flower, it becomes dry, leathery, and inedible unless you are a ruminant (in which case, why aree you reading this?).  The world’s farmers currently grow about 1.4 million tons of artichokes, the vast majority of which still come from Italy.  There is even a delicious artichoke bitter liquor made of artichokes!

Cynara4_artichokeXwildcardoon_offspring