Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus. Try saying that three times really fast. Okay, how about this: ar-ti-choke. Not a whole lot better, right? Well the word artichoke, [also known as Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus] may not roll trippingly off your tongue, but its one of best foods you can put in your mouth.
Artichokes are a kind of thistle - an edible thistle, which sounds like an oxymoron, like hard water. To me it looks like a pineapple with a serious inferiority complex, but as a source of nutrition, its supreme.
The edible portion of the artichoke is the flower bud. So the best part of this amazing plant isnt a feast for the eye, but rather one for the palate. The part you eat is the fleshy base, or heart. Ironically the beard, or the choke, is inedible. Just remember: go for the heart; dont choke on the choke.
A Delicious Globetrotter
Like a tumbleweed, the artichoke has made its way to ancient Greece, Italy, and Egypt; and more recently to Spain, France, the Netherlands, and England. Frenchmen and Spaniards delivered them to North America in the nineteenth century.
Globally, the top five artichoke producers are Italy, Egypt, Spain, Peru, and Argentina.
Monterey County, California is the undisputed king of artichoke production in the U.S., which is ninth among the top 10 artichoke producing countries today.
A Hidden Treasure
To get to the heart of the matter, literally, peel the choke away. Remove most of the stem and the thorns, and boil or steam, salting to taste. Steaming or boiling should be done without a lid, so that acid may be released; and a spritz of vinegar or lemon juice will prevent the artichoke from browning.
Remove the leaves and dip the fleshy base in your favorite sauce - hollandaise, mayo, melted butter - or olive oil, lemon, or vinegar. The fibrous part of the leaf is inedible.
A Versatile Veritable Feast
While some parts of the artichoke are off limits, the uses for this amazing plant seem infinite. The ancient Greeks used them as deodorant, a diuretic, and even an aphrodisiac. And a slightly more recent Greek delight is a stew with potatoes, artichokes, and carrots.
Italians adorn pizzas with artichoke hearts, and even deep-fry them whole! Romans also stuff them with bread, cheese, sausage, and herbs. In Spain they are barbecued and served with rice. North African and Middle Eastern connoisseurs stuff them with ground lamb, veggies, spices, and oil. There are even teas and liqueurs made from this thorny thistle.
Artichoke Heart Healthy
Artichokes are low in calories and high in fiber. But the greatest benefit may be how rich they are in antioxidants, like silymarin, caffeic acid, and ferulic acid. In fact, they hold seventh place on the USDA's list of top 20 antioxidant-rich foods.
Artichokes improve digestion and gallbladder function. They also balance levels of good and bad cholesterol, which reduces the risk of coronary disease. Theyre a delicious source of minerals like copper, calcium, potassium, iron, manganese, magnesium, and phosphorus. And fresh artichokes are a mother lode of folic acid, which is important for fetal development. They also provide vitamin K which strengthens bones and brains.
Boiled, steamed, barbecued, stuffed or stewed, artichokes are as good for your health as they are for your palate, and thats a powerful combination.