Love at First Bite

by Becky Green Aaronson

It was love at first bite. Slow. Sensual. Seductive. Heat rising from its gorgeous, shimmering body. Fingers caressing its succulent, tender leaves. Teeth gently scraping each of its delicate tips. Layer after steamy layer being peeled away until finally reaching its luscious meaty heart.

It’s no wonder the artichoke has been lauded as an aphrodisiac for centuries. This irresistible green vegetable is bursting with va-va-voom. You see, the artichoke packs a passionate food punch. Filled with heart-healthy nutrients, as well as a whole host of disease-fighting antioxidants, the artichoke is one of the healthiest vegetables around. Never mind its libido-elevating properties!

But like all good relationships, artichokes take a little work and a lot of patience. In this age of fast food and packaged convenience, it makes no concessions to those who want a quick meal. Though simple to prepare, artichokes take time to cook.

It’s always worth the wait, though, as nothing compares to the artichoke’s sumptuous nutty flavor, especially when shared with a special person while lingering over a long meal. Throw in some candles and a bottle of wine, and life doesn’t get much better.

My obsession with artichokes started a few years ago when I moved from the Rocky Mountains to the California coast.

I knew I’d hit the culinary jackpot when my husband started coming home from Santa Barbara’s farmers market every Saturday morning with the most stunning Green Globe artichokes I’d ever seen. Always huge. Always firm. And always freshly cut.

That’s when artichokes began taking center stage at nearly every Saturday evening meal we prepared. They added the perfect panache to our al-fresco dinners in the backyard, giving even the simplest meal a special-occasion quality.

Fortunately for my husband and me, and all our artichoke-loving friends, we chose the right place to live, as nearly 100 percent of all artichokes grown commercially in the United States come from California. And with its Mediterranean-like climate and deep, fertile soils, the Central Coast makes the ideal place for artichoke farms to flourish.

In fact, the artichoke has been designated the official vegetable of Monterey County. And Castroville, a small town just north of Monterey, has proclaimed itself the Artichoke Capital of the World because three-quarters of all California artichokes are grown in this fog-shrouded area. For more than a half century Castroville has celebrated this crop with its annual Artichoke Festival, which is usually held in May.

When I visited Castroville recently and strolled into a local produce shop located next to a giant artichoke statue, an enthusiastic clerk asked me in his thick Mexican accent, “You know Marilyn Monroe? She was our first Artichoke Queen!” Then he proudly showed me a hand-painted rendering from the late 1940s with the young starlet sporting the sash and crown. She was credited with igniting America’s passion for artichokes.

So how did the artichoke come to California? The globe artichoke is one of the oldest known cultivated vegetables in the world, but food historians puzzle over its origins. Some believe it came from the Middle East because the word artichoke is derived from the Arabic word al-qarshu. Others believe it came from a Mediterranean country, possibly Sicily or nearby Tunisia. Whichever the case, it’s well known that the artichoke was highly valued in ancient Greece and Rome as a digestive aid, and over the centuries Italians went on to become the world’s largest producers. It is those folks, along with the French and Spanish, we have to thank for bringing the artichoke to the shores of the United States. The French brought them to Louisiana and Spanish and Italians brought them to California. Bless their adventurous hearts!

You might think it would be difficult to fall in love with a prickly, maraca-shaped vegetable belonging to the thistle family, but I happen to think it’s one of the most gorgeous food items around. Ask anyone who has ever enjoyed a meal beneath the large, framed artichoke print hanging in our dining room, and you’ll know just how much I treasure its art-like qualities.

Perhaps what I appreciate most about the artichoke, though, besides its unique flavor and elegant appearance, is what’s inside one of these nutrient-rich beauties. Research shows that cooked artichokes are the best source of antioxidants among all fresh vegetables. Since antioxidants can help prevent the onset of such chronic diseases as cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s and rheumatoid arthritis, it’s just one more reason to indulge in one of these delectable thistle plants.

And at only 60 calories, the artichoke is a dieter’s dream. It also has no fat or cholesterol, is low in sodium and contains more bone-building magnesium and potassium than any other vegetable, along with folate, magnesium and vitamin C, which helps maintain the immune system. It’s also rich in fiber and a healthy source of protein.

So how does all of this lend the artichoke a reputation of being an aphrodisiac? It all comes down to the milk thistle extract found in artichokes, called silymarin. This herb has been used for over 2,000 years to promote liver detoxification, and some studies show that milk thistle helps protect the liver from toxins found in the environment.

The theory is that when the body is toxic and the heart is weak, it’s pretty difficult to have an active, healthy libido. So if you are feeling the need for some extra va-va-voom in your life, forget the Viagra and Intrinsa—eat your artichokes!

Preparing an artichoke is a breeze, but first be sure to pick the freshest and ripest one you can find. Ask any artichoke farmer and they’ll tell you that ripe ones feel heavy for their size and squeak when they’re squeezed.

During my recent Saturday morning trip to the farmers market, a sturdy young woman from Life’s a Choke Farms in Lompoc suggested looking for one with a thick stem, because that means it also has a big heart. “You also want to avoid any that are brown, dry looking or have leaves that appear to be too ‘open,’” she counseled, “as that indicates the ’choke is past its prime.”

As I stood ogling the neatly stacked artichoke display, I overheard an older man swooning over his recent finds. “Feel how heavy these are?” His eyes sparkled as he handed them to his college-age grandson. “These were just picked. Eat these tonight and you’ll be in heaven!” It was obvious that I wasn’t the only one obsessed with these beauties.

Artichokes can be prepared multiple ways; boiled, steamed, grilled, roasted, microwaved or sautèed. They can be eaten whole or added to other dishes. For a purist like myself, I simply steam them for about 30–45 minutes. That’s after I wash them, cut the stems off at the base and trim the tops so they sit flat when I place them upside down in a steamer basket. It doesn’t get much easier than that.

The hardest part is deciding which dipping sauce to try with your artichoke. Some people like melted garlic butter, others like olive oil, while others can’t live without mayonnaise and lemon. I’m fond of balsamic vinaigrette. Recipes abound, and there are no rules. Try several different oils or sauces until you discover what lights up your taste buds. Just keep in mind that those 60 little calories the artichoke totes is without a load of butter or mayo, so proceed with caution if you’re trying to keep it healthy.

When the artichoke is cooked and cooled enough to touch, simply start peeling off the leaves. Then, while holding the pointed end, dip each leaf into your chosen sauce and scrape its tender insides between your teeth.

Once you get to the middle of the artichoke, pull off the fuzzy center, appropriately called the “choke,” then take a knife, carve out the scrumptious heart, cut it into pieces and delight in veggie nirvana.

Some say that wine and artichokes don’t mix because of the artichoke’s unique acidic aftertaste and its reputation for making wines taste sweeter, but I think the two are natural partners. Both indulge the palate and add sensual elements to a lovely meal. And since California is home to both superb wine and artichokes, why not try? I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Pairing food and wine is truly just a matter of personal taste anyway. I’ve found that everything from a Merlot to a Sauvignon Blanc to a dry Chardonnay works well with artichokes. And depending on how the artichoke is prepared and which sauce is served, a variety of other wines can work as well.

Paradise Café owner Randy Rowse often suggests a crisp local Pinot Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc when pairing wine with the popular oak-grilled artichoke served at his restaurant. Executive Chef Tony Baker of Montrio Bistro in Monterey suggests a fruity Italian red wine or dry rose for artichokes served with tomato sauce, and Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay when serving artichokes with cream-based sauce. Again, it’s purely a matter of taste. Sip what you enjoy and don’t worry about what you “should” be pairing with artichokes.

Eating an artichoke is a sublime heart-healthy and heart-happy experience. Ever since moving to California, I’ve learned there’s no better culinary delight than sharing a home-cooked meal with friends and family … except for sharing a home-cooked meal with friends and family centered around an artichoke. Every time, it’s love at first bite—all over again.


Becky Green Aaronson is an award-winning writer who lives with her husband and daughter in Santa Barbara. When she’s not eating artichokes and writing magazine articles, she’s working on two books.





Steamed Artichokes

Wash the artichokes and shake out excess water. Cut the stems off at the base and trim the tops. If the leaves have thorns, you might want to cut the tips off the outer leaves. Place in a steamer basket over boiling water. You can add a clove of garlic and a bay leaf to the water for extra flavor. Cover and steam over simmering water for 30–45 minutes or until a leaf pulls out easily. Serve with your choice of melted garlic butter, olive oil, mayonnaise and lemon or balsamic vinaigrette. 

Grilled Artichokes

Steam the artichokes as above. Cool slightly and then cut each in half lengthwise. Scrape out the fuzzy choke in the center. Brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Place the artichokes on a medium hot-grill, cut side down, for about 5 minutes. Turn and continue to grill until lightly browned for another 3–4 minutes. Serve with your choice of dipping sauces.



Categories Spring 2010