When a plant can trace its culinary history back to ancient Greece, you can probably assume that the story of its journey to the present is a windy, and occasionally perilous path. We see them piled on tables like long-handled green scepters with hand written signs that say "3 for $5," but little did we know that the artichoke started off life as a punished goddess who fed the dreams of queens, Cajuns, frontiersmen, and the Mafia.
Any story about Greek gods would be missing something if it didn't involve some sort of transformational punishment. In this case, it was the Zeusian lover, Cynara (where the artichoke gets its g/s - Cynara scolymus) who was transformed into an artichoke - a word that sounds nothing like Cynara. The deposed goddess started to lose her prominence to the English speaking world sometime in the 1st century, thanks to the Saracens of southern Spain: the English, Spanish, and Italian words likely come from the Arabic al-haršuf or al'qarshuf.
Catherine de Medici was credited for bringing the edible flower to France (it's actually a member of the thistle family), and the French were credited for bringing it to Louisiana, the first American home of the plant. It eventually disappeared from the bayous and plantations and ended its journey in California, where it became the center of a Mafia monopoly that once prompted then New York City Mayor Fiorello La Guardia to ban the beloved bloom, though only temporarily. Turns out he loved it too much to keep it out of his kitchen. Today, California provides nearly 100% of the artichokes seen in our markets.
There are over a hundred difference varieties of artichokes, as they've had centuries to diversify. But commercially only about 40 of them make the grade, the most common in California being the Green Globe, Imperial Star, Desert Globe, and the Emerald. In our local markets we often see the two pound Big Hearts, one of which easily makes for a terrific meal on its own. In prime artichoke season, the aristocratic Violette di Chioggia, an Italian heirloom with dark purple leaves and a rich, nutty, and pleasantly bitter flavor, occasionally makes an appearance in full-grown form, but you're more likely to find its delicate-leaved and egg-sized 'baby' version piled into strawberry baskets.
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Choose 'chokes with leaves that tightly hug its core and that feel heavy for its size. Because it's a springtime vegetable, it sometimes endures the occasional frost, causing the outer leaves and tips to brown a little. This doesn't affect the quality of the 'choke -- remember you're eating the heavily protected heart -- and most preparations call for the removal of outer leaves and tips anyway. Our market chokes often come with a good length of stem attached. The outside of that stem is threaded with tough and brittle fibers, but peel them away and the core of that stem is the same as the coveted heart, soft and delicate, with one of the most sought-after flavors in the world. Eat them steamed, broiled, grilled, or even fried whole to a golden brown. They are as versatile as they are sought-after. If you are an artichoke noob, pay a visit to Susan Russo's (aka Food Blogga) artichoke tutorial and then head to the market. The larger Los Angeles markets (Hollywood, Torrance, Santa Monica) will have a wider variety, but you likely find what you need at almost any local market. The top picture was snapped at Pasadena and the purple artichoke pictures were taken at the Hillcrest farmers market in San Diego. The vendor was Suncoast Farms--they also have great asparagus, broccoli, and a few heirloom bean varieties--and you can find them at many local markets.