Late Spring is a favorite time for me on Cinnamon Bear Farm. The birds are especially active, providing entertainment while we plant and weed. Swallows and Blue Birds prefer the same size entrance holes for the numerous nest boxes that we have provided. They are the busy unpaid workers, swooping around, gluttonously devouring insects for us. Now that they are hanging out around the nests, they often perch on the top, long enough for me to have a conversation with them, while my husband remains amused at my attempts.
Jack is an avid birder, going on trips specifically for sitings of special birds, with binoculars, spotting scope, bird identification books, and a “bazooka” telescopic lens on his camera. While I can identify many more birds than the average citizen, I am definitely not a birder. I am a “bird watcher”. I’m more interested in their behaviors and antics than looking for tiny little visual differences that categorize their identities.
By late May, most of the summer plantings are in, ensuring future deliciousness. In the meantime, we have been enjoying artichokes, one of our favorite vegetables. This perennial plant stays in the garden year around, but mostly produces in May and early June in our climate. It’s actually a beautiful plant and it’s cousin, the Cardoon, is often used in landscaping.
Artichokes belong to the thistle family and have been eaten in the Mediterranean area for centuries. The main part that is eaten is the flower bud, composed of triangular shaped bracts arranged around the globe shape and the internal base, known as the heart. In the center of the bud, the immature florets constitute the “choke”. The choke is usually discarded as the texture is too fuzzy to enjoy.
As a fifth generation Californian, eating artichokes is something that I’ve grown up with, but I understand that this is a very confusing vegetable for some people who aren’t that familiar with it. There are so many delicious things to do with frozen or canned artichoke hearts, but it takes an abundance of artichokes and lots of time to prepare those from scratch. Instead, the instructions that I have provided are for the whole artichoke, straight out of the garden.
The most simple thing to do to prepare an artichoke for cooking is to wash it and begin. However, some people prefer to snip off the pointy tips with scissors, as some of these can be thorny, depending on the variety. If you plan to cut an artichoke in half or cut off the top 1“ of thorny points, I prefer a serrated knife. It’s easier to do all of the cutting before cooking to prevent it from falling apart. The short stem is also edible, so I usually leave about and inch of it on. However, for some recipes, the stem is removed so that the artichoke will sit upright for serving. Pull off a few of the smaller outer leaves, as these will be too tough to eat.
As we use organic methods, there are occasional ear wigs (insects) chomping on our artichokes, hiding among the artichoke petals. Then we simply soak the artichokes in salt water and the little critters come floating to the top. I prefer to get rid of them and not add this extra protein to my artichoke dish. If there is an ear wig problem, it will be obvious, as a few will come crawling out anyway. Most of the time, the salt water soak isn’t necessary as they’re usually gone before the artichokes arrive at market.
Artichokes oxidize rapidly, especially the cut stems, so if this discoloration matters to you, it can be minimized by squeezing lemon juice over the cuts.
Now for fancier, preparations, one can cut the artichokes in half, snip off the thorns, and remove the fuzzy part of the core with a spoon and paring knife. A serrated grapefruit spoon also works. For baking a whole artichoke, pull out the center leaves and remove the fuzzy core as suggested above, leaving a hollow center for stuffing. The fuzz can also be removed easily from artichoke halves, just before serving.
HOW TO EAT AN ARTICHOKE
If you are unfamiliar with artichokes, it’s a hands on vegetable. Start with the outer leaves and work toward the center. As you pull off one leaf, dip the soft end into a dipping sauce and place this end between your front teeth. Bite down enough to get a grip on the petal and pull it out of your mouth, letting your teeth scrape off the fleshy part of the petal. Depending on the variety and maturity, some artichoke petals will have more soft fleshy areas than others. As you work toward the center petals, they will be even softer and you can probably bite off at least 1/2 of the petal surface.
When the petals are gone, you will notice a fuzzy area in the center of the artichoke heart. Occasionally, our artichokes are tender enough to eat this part, but the chokes on most commercial artichokes are usually too fuzzy and coarse to eat. Scrape this part of the thistle out with a knife or spoon. If the stem is attached, it’s also edible, but can be slightly bitter or tough if it’s longer than 2 inches. I take my knife and peel off the outer fibers, but my husband loves the whole stem.
Now you have the best part of the artichoke to savor. If the stem is still attached, it can be used as a handle for dipping. The heart can also be cut into bite size pieces and eaten with a fork. Yum!