Artichokes, the Official Vegetable of California
Nearly two-thirds of the state’s crop of artichokes comes from the area around Castroville and Salinas, with the remainder growing further south. The moderate climate with cool summers and mild winters, as well as the cooling fog make for ideal growing conditions. And with these conditions, California can offer two crops per year, the spring yield and the fall/winter crop. The Green Globe cultivar comprises the majority of commercial cultivation, but there are several varieties from which to choose at your local farmers’ market. The artichoke is offered in sizes from large to “baby” and even a purple artichoke variety is available. Artichokes have to be harvested by hand, a very labor-intensive proposition. Baskets of artichokes are sorted by size and type, then packed and brought to the markets fresh each week. Harvesting for the spring crop is from March to May, while the fall/winter crop is from September to December. Fall and winter artichokes may be darker or bronze-tipped or have a whitish, blistered appearance due to exposure to light frost. This is called "winter-kissed." These frost-kissed artichokes are considered to be the most tender and with intense flavor. Spring varieties are tender and sweet. Small farmers are developing new varieties all the time, but here are some of the more available cultivars you will see at your local farmers’ market: Green Globe This is the most common artichoke; globe-shaped, green with some purple as its base and has prominent thorns; mild and nutty in flavor. Peaks in March and April. Desert Globe Winter variety. Not as thorny, compact is size; nutty flavor. Peaks in early spring. Big Heart Thornless variety, conical in shape, with purple tinge at its base. Usually available year-round, but peaks in the fall. Good rich flavor with wide “heart.” Imperial Star Thornless variety with a glossy green color, conical in shape, well-developed hearts, good artichoke flavor. Peak production in the spring. Purple Gorgeous purple color in a wide variety of different cultivars; rich nutty flavor; available in spring. Jerusalem Artichokes These are not artichokes at all, but from a different group of the sunflower family. They are tubers, also called sunchokes. Generally available through the fall. How to Buy: Choose artichokes which are vibrant and free of discoloration. Make sure that they are tightly closed --- an artichoke that has begun to open will have a tough and undesirable texture. To ensure a fresh artichoke always check the bottom of the stem as it is a good indication of when the vegetable was harvested. How to Store: For the best flavor eat artichokes within a few days of purchasing as they lose their flavor intensity over time. How to Prepare: Chef Mario Hernandez offers this article on how to "turn" an artichoke." TIP: Artichokes do not pair well with wines because they contain cynarin, a chemical that enhances the perception of sweet flavors.