The artichoke is a perennial thistle originating in southern Europe around the Mediterranean. The flowers develop in a large head from an edible bud about 3-5 inches in diameter with numerous triangular scales. The mass of immature florets in the center of the bud is called the choke.
The true origin of artichokes is unknown, though they are said to have come from North Africa. The seeds of artichokes, probably cultivated, were found during the excavations in Egypt. Artichokes are known to have been cultivated at Naples around the middle of the 9th century.
The Dutch introduced artichokes to England, where they grew in Henry VIII’s garden at Newhall in 1530. They were brought to the United States in the 19th century, to Louisiana by French immigrants and to California by Spanish immigrants. The name has originated from the Arabic al-kharshof, through a Northern Italian dialect word, articiocco.
In the United States, California provides nearly 100% of the U.S. crop, and approximately 80 percent of that is grown in Monterey County. Castroville proclaims itself to be “The Artichoke Center of the World”, and holds an annual festival at which artichoke ice cream is served.
Home gardeners in northern regions can attempt to produce a crop without the need to overwinter plants with special treatment or protection. The peak season for artichoke harvesting is the spring, but they continue to be harvested throughout the summer, with another peak period in mid autumn.
In the US, artichokes are most frequently prepared for cooking by removing all but 5–10 mm or so of the stem, and cutting away about a quarter of each scale with scissors. This removes the thorns that can interfere with handling the leaves when eating. Then, the artichoke is boiled or steamed until tender. Leaves are often removed and eaten one at a time, sometimes dipped in butter, mayonnaise, lemon juice or other sauces.
In France artichokes are very popular deep fried. In Spain, the more tender younger and smaller artichokes are used. They can be sprinkled with olive oil and left in hot ashes in a barbecue, sauteed in olive oil with garlic, or sauteed and combined with eggs in a frittata. More often cited are the Greek artichokes of which the finest examples are to be found on the island of Tinos.
Artichoke stems, which are often thrown away, are perfectly edible and taste like the artichoke heart.