Passing Pleasures: Artichokes

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      Artichokes are a wonderful addition to the New Mexico garden. They are splendid silvery architectural bushes for the cooler seasons of the year, and provide a rare treat to their enthusiasts.

       One of the overlooked aspects of front yard gardening is that neat greens like Swiss Chard can’t be used as edging because passers-by don’t know vegetables when they see them, or don’t care, and so they let their dogs urinate on anything along the sidewalk. I solve this problem by edging my front garden with artichokes: the edible part happens a few feet off the ground, and until a squadron of Irish Wolfhounds comes to my neighborhood, I’m safe.

     Now is the time to start artichokes from seed, to enjoy next spring. I like the common “Green Globe” best. The plants typically live 3-4 years in our area. The scaly buds don’t get as big as they do on the misty west coast, but they’re very delicious. A deep watering once a week is plenty once they’re established. They don’t produce over a long season, but for two weeks in late spring we revel in all the fresh artichokes we can eat, and a rare feast it is, too. If you’re interested in such things, artichokes contain abundant amounts of two antioxidants, cynarin and silymarin, which are found only in the thistle family. I’m not sure what this really means nutritionally, but it does mean that when I feel tired and out of sorts, I can eat a plate of artichokes, telling myself that a good dose of cynarin will fix me right up. It usually does, too, unless it’s the bagna cauda or the general abundance of the season that I’m responding to.
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For more on cultivation and recipes, click here!

Start artichokes from seed in the spring or early summer. Plant them out in their permanent place when they’re six or eight inches high. Keep them three feet apart. They will be puny the first year, so fill in around them with other plants. After their first winter, they will probably send up two or three plants from each root. Let them. Harvest the buds while the bracts (the scales) are still tightly closed. As soon as they start to separate at the tips, the artichoke starts to lose quality very rapidly. Each plant will form a large central bud and a number of small buds.
In subsequent years, each plant may send out as many as 7-8 new plants. Cut off all but three. If y6ou need more plants, cut these excess offsets off carefully with some root system, and they can be nursed into new plants. Start new ones from seed after 4 years.
When using artichokes as ornamentals, bear in mind that they begin to die back after flowering, although the withering is less severe if you take care to harvest every single bud, without allowing any to open and bloom on the plant. They come back strong with the first cool weather, and are highly ornamental into winter. I plant melons near mine and let them ramble forward over the artichoke plants during their least attractive season.
To eat them, harvest, wash, and boil in salted water with a squeeze of lemon juice. Timing is according to the size, from 45 minutes down to 20. To test for doneness, lift one out of the pot and pull out a bract near the center and try to eat it. The bract should pull out fairly easily and the flesh at the base come off when scraped with your teeth. They can be steamed too. When done set them upside down in a strainer to drain well for five minutes and bring to the table in triumph. I like a dipping sauce based on the Italian Bagna Cauda: 4 oz of best butter melter with half a cup of olive oil, a tablespoon of garum or two chopped anchovy fillets (see the “notes on special ingredients” section of my website), and six finely chopped cloves of garlic. Simmer all together for ten minutes over low heat, check to make sure the garlic bits are cooked and soft but not browned, and serve in a heated bowl with plenty of artichokes.
It’s also lovely to clean the artichokes down to their hearts, cut in half or quarters if large and saute in butter or olive oil with some sea salt, and enjoy the crisp browned exteriors and meaty, flavorful flesh underneath. To clean an artichoke, see the very good illustrations at Anna Maria Volpi. I love them over pasta. Toss cooked pasta with very good olive oil, a bit of chopped raw garlic, a dash of garum, and a generous sprinkle of red pepper. Toss with very good Parmesan cheese grated, and top with sauteed artichokes. Or rub chicken thighs or nice chunks of white king salmon with herbs and garlic, let sit 30 minutes, grill or roast until done, and serve with a generous portion of sauteed artichoke hearts alongside, as shown below. Pure heaven. As with many of the things I grow, I enjoy them hugely and lavishly in their season and then don’t eat them again until they’re in season again. Gather your cynarin and silymarin while ye may. april 2009 001

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