Artichokes are considered a culinary delicacy and have been highly prized in the past. And no wonder when they have so many health benefits. But what is an artichoke?
The artichoke is nothing more than a huge, cultivated thistle flower. Related to the cardoon, globe artichokes (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus) are perennial thistles, developing in their first year and flowering in their subsequent years. Native to the Mediterranean, and have been cultivated in Sicily since the time of the ancient Greeks. They derive their name from the Italian word ‘articiocco’, which comes from the Ligurian word ‘cocali’ meaning pine cone.
The huge, seasonal artichoke heads sold in the supermarket look exotic, with no obvious part of it that looks remotely edible. The edible part is hidden away inside and without a point in the right direction; you are like to give up trying to find it after you’re the first bitter taste of an artichoke petal.
The edible artichoke that we eat is the unopened flower of the plant. The heart is the most delicious part and the only piece that is truly coveted by the gourmet chef. The bases of the outer petal are also particularly nice, and are traditionally eaten along with a tasty, creamy dip.
The petals themselves are bitter tasting and inedible. However, once cooked in boiling water, these petals easily peel away from the base of the flower head. At the base of the removed petal is a tiny morsel of delicious artichoke heart.
Unless the artichoke is very small, you will definitely want to avoid the hairy choke. When left to mature on the plant, these hairs go on to produce part of the seed body. The taste of the choke is unpleasant and you will have no alternative that to spit the whole thing out! The stem is also bitter tasting, except where it attaches to the heart. On juvenile artichokes you can eat the choke as well as the bottom half of the inner petals.
Artichokes have more antioxidants in them than any other vegetable. They are rich in vitamin C, iron and potassium and have been found to reduce cholesterol. They can improve digestion and a medium artichoke contains more fibre than a cup of prunes. In addition, they have cancer fighting properties.
There are hundreds of varieties of artichoke to choose from. You can still buy a few of the old historic varieties such as 'Violetta di Chioggia', and 'Gros Vert de Laon'. The edible flower is produced from the second year onwards, although some varieties of artichoke can be grown from seed as annuals.
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