Unlike most vegetables, artichokes are neither fruit, nor bulb, nor root. They are actually flower buds of a perennial thistle plant from the Asteraceae family, commonly known as the sunflower family.
Artichokes and cardoons were two edible thistle plants well known in Antiquity. They were also mentioned as garden plants by Hesiod and Homer in the 8th century B.C. The plant occurred naturally in its wild state throughout the Mediterranean region and was cultivated and used by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Pliny the Elder mentioned the cultivation of cardoons in 1st century A.D. in Andalusia, Spain. A 1st century Roman gourmet Marcus Gavius Apicius even left a few cardoon recipes for posterity.
After the fall of Roman Empire artichokes seem to have disappeared from the menus. They were known in 10th century Spain and were re-introduced to Italy from Levant in the late 15th century. The cultivation spread from Sicily to Italy and to Languedoc, Southern France. The Dutch introduced artichokes to England. They were cultivated in the gardens of Henry VIII. European settlers introduced artichokes to the United States sometime in the 19th century: the French to Louisiana; the Spaniards to California.
Already ancient Egyptians and Romans considered artichokes a delicacy. In 18th century France artichokes were believed to be aphrodisiacs and were reserved for the nobles. Today, artichokes are accessible to all for the most part of the year. They are rather easy to prepare, quite delicious, and very good for the body. The simplest way to enjoy them is to steam them.
In my recipe I used young, middle sized artichokes of the Romanesco variety. When planning a menu, calculate at least 30 minutes for preparation and steaming. Depending on the size you may need more time till the artichokes become tender. Smaller and younger artichokes cook faster. They are great as an appetizer and best served warm or in room temperature with melted butter, vinaigrette, sauce Hollandaise, or a variety of dips such as aioli.
- 2-3 medium large artichokes per person
- 1 lemon, sliced
- 1Tbsp Celtic sea salt
- 1/2 lemon for rubbing
- To prepare artichokes for steaming, start with pulling off the outermost tough, dried bracts from the stem, usually two to three layers.
- Using a sharp knife trim the stems and cut off the top of each bud, about 1/5 to 1 inch, depending on the size of your artichokes. Rub the cut surfaces with lemon to prevent discoloration.
- Using sharp scissors or kitchen shears, trim each bract about 1/4 inch to remove the thorny tips. Remember to rub lemon juice on the cut surfaces.
- Fill a large pot with enough water so that it almost touches the steamer basket. Add lemon slices and salt and bring the water to boil. Place prepared artichokes, stem side up, in the steamer basket. Place the basket in the pot. Cover the pot and steam for 30 minutes. If necessary, add more water.
- To check if artichokes are tender and ready to eat, inset a paring knife into the stem. Steam a little longer if necessary.
- Place fully cooked artichokes on a platter or on individual plates and serve with a dip of your choice. Enjoy in good company!
Artichokes have many health benefits. They are rich in nutrients such as calcium, iron, and potassium; vitamins A, B, especially folate, and K; and antioxidant nutrients such as anthocyanins, quercetin, and rutin; and fiber. They contain compounds called cynarin and silymarin which have shown to assist the liver. Cynarin increases production of bile and helps ease the digestion of food and prevents bloating. Silymarin promotes regeneration of liver cells and inhibits fibrogenesis in the liver. Overall, artichokes are known to reduce blood pressure, improve liver health, control blood cholesterol, and improve digestion. Use them as often as you can to profit from their health benefits.
Images by Dominique Allmon©2017
*Health information in this article is for educational purposes only and is not meant to diagnose or cure a disease.