When I was a child, my mother served us artichokes whenever she could find them. I was the only one I knew who ate them, delighting in pulling off each leaf and dipping it into wonderful melted butter. We were a big family, and food was our heart and soul. Getting a big, fat artichoke all to ourselves, each with our own little pot of melted butter was the height of fun, cool, deliciousness.
Italian Uncle, Grazie
Why did we have artichokes? My mother had an Italian uncle who gardened and he made sure artichokes were part of his harvest. After all, though today California supplies the country with artichokes, when my mother was growing up the industry – and the plants – were nascent, hardly in existence. Merci, then, to my grand uncle whom I never knew but who shaped all of our palates!
Who knew that the artichoke was once considered a love drug? That is how the Greeks and the Romans saw it, anyway, as they boiled and served it drenched in honey and spices.
Zeus Fell For Her
It all goes back to a woman named Cynara, who lived on an island in the Aegean. Zeus saw and fell in love with her because, legend has it, she didn’t even notice his attentions. She was happy on her island but it was too far away for Zeus, so he made her a goddess which allowed him to bring her close to his own home, Mt. Olympus, where he could see her often. Whenever she could, though, she returned to her mortal life and when Zeus discovered this, he cast her out of the heavens, transforming her as he did so into a spiky plant. If he couldn’t have her, he wanted no one to have her.
His Plan Foiled
His plan, like so many, didn’t work because hungry humans found their way beyond the spikes to the delicious leaves and heart of the artichoke, whose Latin name is Cynara cardunculus.
It Wasn’t Just an Aphrodisiac
Its aphrodisiac properties weren’t all that attracted the Greeks and Romans to the artichoke. They discovered its medicinal qualities, which include large amounts of polyphenols that contain antioxidants, those little magicians that can prevent disease. They contain vitamin C and high amounts of vitamin K, and are thought to help ward off cognitive decline, among other things. The ancients knew this; they also knew how to get to the artichoke’s heart to enjoy its delicately nutty flavor.
The Arabs loved the artichoke, too, and called it arde chawke, spine of the earth. It is highly likely that Crusaders brought it back from the Middle East to Europe in the 12th century, where monks exercised their botanical miracles to turn it into the round, fleshy globes we commonly see at most markets today, which come in colors ranging from dusty green to deep purple.
The Best Way To Cook It
The best way to cook an artichoke? Braising with herbs and garlic is a sure winner, though you can steam them, and cook them on the grill (see recipe in FRENCH GRILL). And if you’ve got the baby variety, you can eat them raw, drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil.
Try the braise here, though. You’ll be seduced for sure, just like the Greeks and the Romans.
BRAISED ARTICHOKES - ARTICHAUTS BRAISÉS
- 4 good-sized artichokes the tips of each leaf trimmed, rinsed
- 6 cloves garlic green germ removed
- 1 large bunch of flat-leaf parsley to give 3 cups leaves, loosely packed
- The zest of one and a half lemons
- 1/4 cup (60 ml ) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 to 1 cup (60 to 250ml ) water
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- The zest of half a lemon – for garnish
- Trim off the stems of the artichoke flush with the bottom. Turn over the artichoke so the stem end is up, and place it on a hard surface. Press firmly on the artichoke so it flattens slightly, and “opens.” Turn the artichokes upright and arrange them in a large stockpot or Dutch oven.
- Mince together the garlic and the parsley. Zest half a lemon and mix the zest with the garlic and parsley. Open the artichokes enough (if they haven’t already opened enough from being pressed) so that you can easily divide the parsley/garlic mixture among them, placing it inside right down to the core of the artichoke. Pour 1 tablespoon oil into each artichoke.
- Pour 1/4 cup (60ml) water around the artichokes. Sprinkle with a liberal amount of salt and freshly ground black pepper, cover, and place over medium heat. When the water comes to a boil, reduce the heat to medium and cook until the artichokes are tender, about 40 minutes. Be prepared to add additional water if necessary - this will depend largely on the type and season of the artichoke, for at different times of year they tend to release more water. Check reasonably often, to be sure nothing is burning and sticking to the bottom of the pan. To test for doneness, using tongs, up-end one of the artichokes and pierce the heart with a sharp knife - if it is done, the knife will go easily into the heart, which should be tender, not mushy.
- To serve, place an artichoke on a warmed plate. Garnish with a quick zesting of the remaining half lemon zest.