Artichokes (i carciofi) are one of the world’s oldest cultivated vegetables (technically a thistle) and they are as Italian as Michelangelo, having originated in Sicily or somewhere very close in southern Italy.
There’s a little bit of work to be done to get to the edible part but don’t let that put you off because it’s quite simple and quick once you get the hang of it.
The part you eat is actually the bud that forms before it flowers but if you let it turn into an attractive bright lilac flower there will be nothing left that’s edible. Artichokes are incredibly versatile and three or four of them is all you need for a delicious risotto or pasta dinner or by themselves as a side dish to accompany meat or fish.
Artichokes are stacked up high in the supermarkets in the first few months of the year in Italy as you can see from the photograph above. They are a traditional component of the Mediterranean diet and are loaded with nutrients and antioxidants as well as being one of the richest sources of polyphenols.
The Italian season for artichokes starts in December with the moretto or violetto smaller deep purple varieties (left photo below) and then these are joined by the larger globe variety called la mammola or carciofo Romanesco (right photo) which start to appear in the supermarkets in mid February. By the end of May it’s all over and back to buying artichoke hearts in jars which frankly are expensive and just not the same thing at all, so we rarely bother.
The artichoke season in the US is different, starting in March and its epicenter is the self proclaimed 'artichoke center of the world', Castroville in Monterey County, California where more than two thirds of America’s artichokes are grown, mostly the globe variety. The history of artichokes in the US is a classic twentieth century Italian American story involving enterprising Italian immigrants in California (the victims), a New York gangster by the name of Ciro Terranova (the bad guy) and Fiorello La Guardia (the good guy).
It all started in 1922 when Italian farmers leased land in the Salinas valley and grew artichokes commercially for the first time, to ship via the new refrigerated rail cars to the thousands of recently arrived Italian immigrants on the east coast who desperately missed this taste of home. And when something costs a nickel in San Francisco and a dollar in New York it’s going to attract the wrong type of people and eventually this lucrative trade came to the attention of Terranova who tried to corner the entire market by threats, intimidation and violence, even sending his henchmen to California to hack to pieces the crops in the fields of those who resisted.
Not even the east-bound trains were safe from the hoodlums and guards had to be employed to protect the artichokes not under the gangsters' control. Terranova's tactics were very successful for a number of years and he enriched himself handsomely, acquiring the sobriquet 'the artichoke king' along the way.
But he was too successful for his own good and finally in 1935 the mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, who was himself very fond of artichokes (with hollandaise sauce he was quoted as saying), intervened and banned the product in New York in order to break the grip of Terranova and his racketeers.
The intervention of La Guardia and the ban created so much publicity, for what at that time was mostly an ethnic vegetable, that New York wholesalers were swamped with orders and La Guardia had to reverse the ban a week later. The artichoke king was indicted and ultimately jailed and by then the artichoke was firmly established as a vegetable to be taken seriously. And if Hollywood can turn a work of fiction called the Milagro Beanfield War into a film then they ought to be able to make a film about the real life artichoke king.
Today around Castroville, still engaged in farming artichokes, there are many descendants of those original growers with last names like Tottino, Leonardini and Scattini attesting to the Italian heritage of the artichoke crop in the US.
And the final part of this quintessentially American story is that in 1948 an out of work actress arrived in Salinas for a job modeling jewelry for a local store and was spotted by someone from the California Artichoke Association and persuaded to hold a basket of artichokes and a sash at the forerunner of what later became the annual Artichoke Festival in Castroville. Her name was Norma Jean Baker, shortly afterwards to become famous as Marilyn Monroe.
How to prepare artichokes for cooking:
Most Italians think that the common American and British way of cooking and eating artichokes is ridiculous. Steaming it whole and then scraping the edible portion off each leaf with your teeth after dipping it butter or a garlic sauce seems like a bad French recipe from the 1970s. Once you’ve tried it the Italian way you’ll understand why Italians love artichokes and prefer to get all of the preparation out of the way before cooking so you can eat the thing properly without the absurd teeth scraping rigmarole. And furthermore, steaming artichokes has to be the most boring way to cook them.
The following photographs show the preparation of artichokes and it's the same process for every artichoke dish that we make, but if you want to make the Roman style Carciofi alla Romana the steps are slightly different because you will leave the stem attached and scoop out the hairy choke without actually slicing up the artichoke. Most Italians outside Rome will use artichokes as we do, in a risotto or with pasta or with Straccetti di Manzo (see Recipe section) and therefore the following is the easiest way to prepare them:
1. Fill a bowl with cold water and add half a lemon sliced, with the juice squeezed into the water. This will prevent the trimmed artichoke pieces from discoloring prior to cooking.
2. Cut off the stem and trim it down to the lightly colored edible core (1st photo below and photo at right)
3. Remove and discard all the tough inedible outer leaves until you get to the softer paler leaves towards the center (2nd photo below).
4. Cut off and discard the top third of the artichoke (3rd photo).
5. Trim the dark green base of the artichoke just above the stem where the leaves have been broken off (4th photo).
6. Cut the remaining edible artichoke into half lengthwise (5th photo).
7. Trim out the small portion of white hairy choke in each half (6th photo) and then cut the two halves lengthwise again.
Leave all of the sliced quarters of artichoke in the bowl with the lemons until you are ready to cook them. See the Quick Recipes section for our favorite ways to eat them, starting with the first recipe Straccetti di Manzo ai Carciofi.