by Anastassia Skarlinski
Whole globe artichokes are intimidating things. They look like gigantic, tightly furled, slightly spikey, flower buds. Which is convenient as that is exactly what they are. Artichokes are members of the Asteraceae family, the family of thistles, sunflowers, and dandelions native to the Mediterranean. The artichoke has a creation story in Greek mythology. It is said that Zeus one day fell in love with a beautiful mortal named Cynara. He made her a goddess and took her back to Mount Olympus. However, once there Cynara became homesick and would sneak off to visit her family. When Zeus found out, he became angry, kicked Cynara off of Mount Olympus, and turned her into an artichoke. This is why the scientific name of artichokes is Cynara cardunculus.
One artichoke plant can produce up to 20 artichokes a year. What we buy in the store is the edible flower bud picked before the flower opens into a bright purple fluff of color. When shopping for whole artichokes look for an artichoke with a tightly closed, compact head with a dry (not slimy) cut stem end. The bloomed flower of the artichoke is very pretty, and the nutritional benefits of the plant itself are pretty cool too.
Artichokes are a great source of fiber and some plant protein. They are a good source of Vitamins C, K, B6, folate, magnesium, and potassium. Artichokes have some of the highest antioxidant levels found in a vegetable as well. The antioxidants in artichokes are being researched for their role in liver and heart health, as well as cholesterol and blood pressure control.
Some artichoke fans might wonder whether artichokes are the same thing as Jerusalem artichokes? The answer to that one is No! Jerusalem artichoke is a misnomer probably due to a mistranslation when samples of the plant were brought over from the new world. These plants, also known as sunchokes or sunroots, are the roots of a sunflower cultivated by Native Americans of the Great Plains. Knobby and covered with a thin light brown skin, when raw these roots taste similar to a water chestnut and they become creamy in texture when cooked.
Sunchokes also have some great nutritional benefits. They are a good source of iron, magnesium phosphorus, and potassium. They are also a good source of fiber, particularly a kind of fiber called inulin. Inulin is good for your gut health, working as a prebiotic and feeding the good bacteria. It is also why a nickname for sunchokes is “fartichokes”. Try eating them cooked or boiled in lemon juice may help to alleviate this side effect if happens to you.
Whole globe artichokes are typically steamed in lemony water. You then pick off the individual petals and scrape the base with your teeth to get the edible part. They can also be grilled, or stuffed. At the center of the whole artichoke, under the layer of inedible choke, is the artichoke heart. You can buy artichoke hearts on their own jarred, canned, or frozen. These still have the same nutritional benefits as the whole artichoke, but in a slightly easier to eat and prepare form. If sodium is a concern for you, rinsing the artichoke hearts will remove much of the salt. Toss them in soups, salads, or use them as a pizza topping. Sunchokes can be sliced thin as a salad topping or roasted as you would potatoes with some olive oil salt and pepper. Just leave the skins on, they are very thin, hard to peel, and a good source of fiber. I like to make this artichoke dip during the week. We use it as a veggie dip, a sandwich topping, and sometimes as a pasta sauce. It is a great versatile dish to keep on hand and will keep covered in the fridge for about 5 days.