The globe artichoke is a variety of the thistle family which has been cultivated as a food. The edible portion consists of the flower bud before it comes into bloom. They should not be confused with the Jerusalem artichoke, which has nothing to do with Jerusalem or is even a part of the artichoke family. Nutritious, fat-free and lo-cal, artichokes are so versatile they can be added to salads, mixed with pasta, blended into casseroles,stuffed, chopped up and included in cheese spreads, grilled or enjoyed just plain boiled with melted butter or garlic mayo. With their mild, slightly nutty taste, they make a wonderful addition to so many dishes, hot or cold.

The French enjoy boiled fresh artichokes dipped in dijon mustard (what else?) with a bit of balsamic vinegar. Italians savor stuffed artichokes with a spicy breadcrumb mixture, as part of their popular antipasto plates or added to risotto and pasta. Spanish cuisine is brimming with artichoke recipes, as this vegetable is at the top of Spain’s hit parade. They use them in a number of ways, including tapas (small tasting dishes), sauced, marinated, and added to rice dishes and stews. Big fans of grilling and stir frying, Thai cooks serve the artichoke in its basic form with spicy dipping sauces and noodles. Chinese favor a tuber-like vegetable often called a Chinese or Japan artichoke but in fact is not related at all.

Artichokes arrived in America in the late nineteenth century with Italian immigrants, sadly too late for foodie president Thomas Jefferson to enjoy. But one can be sure he would have been a big fan and attempted to grow them in his estate gardens. Artichokes have been crowned the official vegetable in the state of California, due in no small part to Castroville, in Monterey County, which prides itself on being the artichoke capital of the world, where they thrive in the mild coastal climate of central California. They hold an annual Festival in the month of May, at peak season, where hundreds of delectable variations can be sampled, including grilled, sauteed, baked, fried, marinated, pickled, fresh, in soups, and of course cupcakes and ice cream. (Would I make that up?) Western farmers began producing the vegetable commercially in the 1920’s and shipped them across the country.

The largest producer by far, Italy weighs in at over 450,00 tons annually. Egypt, Spain and Argentina also top the list for artichoke production, with the U.S. ranking ninth (only 10% of Italy’s production). But Americans love this vegetable like no other country, in some of their most popular variations:

Simply Roasted or Boiled, dipped in butter or mayo
Stuffed Artichokes
Cold Artichoke Pasta Salad
Hot Artichoke and Spinach Dip
Artichoke Chicken
Breaded and Fried
Hearts in Vegetable Salads or Casseroles
Risotto with Hearts
Eggs Sardou (your basic Eggs Florentine with a whole heart)

Artichokes are a relative newcomer to the U.S. but have been embraced by one and all. At times they may be a bit pricey but can be enjoyed year ’round frozen or canned. For the lowest cost and the freshest available, they should be bought at peak season, which begins in the month of March. If you like them simply boiled they take a half hour to cook, less time with a pressure cooker (which is not for the kitchen coward). But if you need a quick fix or want to add them to a dish, the canned hearts work just fine. So why not expand your vegetable world a bit and take an artichoke to lunch. You’ll get all choked up for sure.

Dale Phillip has never met an artichoke she didn’t like. Growing up, her family were big fans so they were served at dinner frequently, simply cooked in a pressure cooker (her mother was not a kitchen coward) and dipped in melted butter. She enjoys adding them to cold salads and casseroles, or simply right out of the jar. She lives in Southern California but has been contemplating a move to Castroville. Dale invites you to view her many articles in Food and Drink,