Artichoke Season and Preservation

Artichoke Season and Preservation

The peak season for artichokes is March-May, with a secondary season (smaller crop) in October. However, artichokes are available for purchase year-round.

When buying artichokes in the fall and winter, you might find them to have a beige, or dark brown, or black tip. Some may have white spots from being exposed to a light frost. The white spots heighten their flavor.

Preparing Artichokes

Artichokes can be eaten either hot or cold, but first they must be cooked, and before you can even do that, there are various preliminary steps. Start by slicing off the stem from the base of each artichoke. Use a straight cut, so the artichoke will stand upright on the plate. Then, using a paring knife, remove the fibrous peel from the stem. Also, pull off and discard the small outer leaves at the bottom of the artichoke. Lastly, just prior to cooking, the artichokes should be rinsed thoroughly to get rid of any dirt that might be beneath the leaves.

Once these steps have been completed they are ready for boiling. Place the artichokes in a non-aluminum pot filled with 1-2 inches of cold water, enough to cover the artichokes completely. Don’t use an aluminum pot or expose the artichokes to excess air or they will turn gray. The artichokes will bob up in the water, so push them down to be sure the amount of water in the pot is sufficient. You can add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and use a plate to push the artichokes down. Leave the pot uncovered while you bring the water to a boil to keep the artichokes from darkening, then lower the heat and simmer for about 40 minutes.  Or, alternatively, you can place the artichokes on a steaming rack and steam for about 40 minutes. Add more water while cooking, if needed. The artichokes are ready when a paring knife slides into the base of the artichoke, but not as easily as it would into a ready-to-eat baked potato.

Care must be taken to cook artichokes for just the right amount of time. Overcooked artichokes will be mushy. Undercooked artichokes will be hard, and be difficult to eat because you won’t be able to scrape off the leaves with your teeth.

Note that if you are only cooking artichoke bottoms as opposed to the whole artichoke, cooking time is reduced to about 20 minutes. You will still need to scoop the choke out of the cooked artichoke.

However, if you prefer fried artichokes, the choke should be removed before cooking. This is done by cutting the artichoke bottom in half vertically, then using a sharp paring knife, rotating the artichoke, separating the choke from the heart.

Another way to shorten the cooking time for artichokes is to use a pressure cooker. Instead of simmering in a pot of water for 40 or 45 minutes, pressure steaming only requires 15 minutes.

Saving time is not the only benefit you get from using a faster-cooking method. When a vegetable is left submerged in water for a long time, that combined with heat inevitably causes the vegetable to lose some of its nutritional value. In addition to water-soluble vitamins seeping out, some nutrients are heat sensitive. Unfortunately, artichokes are a vegetable for which boiling requires both long cooking and a lot of water Steaming and stir-frying are alternative means of cooking artichokes without compromising the nutritional content so much..

Cardoons also require special preparation prior to serving. First you need to remove and discard the tough outer stalks. Then separate and cut up the individual stalks and the heart and drop the pieces into boiling salted water with added lemon juice or vinegar and cook for 15 minutes. Remove the strings and white skin before serving.

If the prospect, of cooking an artichoke or cardoon, seems too daunting to you, you might consider serving Jerusalem artichokes instead since they require far less preparation. It is not necessarily to peel Jerusalem artichokes before cooking. Just boil them for 20-25 minutes in their skin in water with a teaspoon of vinegar; then peel, if desired, before serving. Other methods, of preparing Jerusalem artichokes, include stewing, frying, baking, and roasting. They can also be eaten raw or added to soups.

How to eat an artichoke

Be thankful that you have been spared the inordinate task that the earliest artichoke eaters faced—figuring out what to eat and what not to eat and how to do it. Those techniques have been passed down through the ages and are now well known, so all you have to do is follow them and enjoy.

Artichokes are best eaten by pulling off one leaf at a time, starting at the outside near the base. A low-fat yogurt-based sauce makes a nice alternative to the more traditional, but much higher calorie cream or butter based sauces typically used for dipping.

You can scrape the soft pulp off each leaf by biting down gently with your upper teeth. This may take awhile getting through all of the layers, but when the leaves start appearing thin and flimsy, you will know that you are getting close to the heart. Finally, you will get to the fuzzy part of the artichoke.  This is called the choke.  Gently scoop out the choke with a spoon and discard. But just beneath the choke, lies the most delectable part of the artichoke, the heart, which you are now ready to eat, making all the extra trouble getting there very worthwhile.

Plucking the leaves and preparing fresh artichokes, so they are ready to eat is a fun activity and not as labor-intensive as it may sound. But if you would rather not be bothered, you can buy already prepared artichoke hearts either frozen or in a jar.

Frozen artichokes are already cooked. They are usually baby artichokes that have been trimmed and halved. They are ready to serve as soon as you defrost them. Just prior to serving, thaw them at room temperature; then drain on a paper towel to absorb the excess moisture.

Artichoke hearts are also available in jars. Since they have a strong briny taste, they are best served either alone or with other strong flavored foods that can stand up to them so that their own flavor won’t dominate.


Preservation

Freezing

Freezing is the most popular and effective method of preserving artichokes for later use. Artichokes will keep for about eight months if the correct procedure is followed.

Traditional method

Prior to cooking, cut the top 1/3 of each artichoke into pieces or cut the tips off the leaves and then cut into quarters lengthwise, removing the tough stems and the choke. Then place the artichoke pieces in a lemon water solution ((1 lemon to 2 quarts of water). The lemon will prevent the artichokes from darkening.

The next step is blanching. Blanching can be done either by steaming the artichoke pieces over boiling lemon water or boiling them in the water for 2-5 minutes (depending on the artichoke size). Blanching is necessary to cleanse the vegetable and soften it for packing, as well as to stop undesirable enzyme activity that can cause loss of flavor, color, and texture. However, blanching for just the right amount of time is critical. Under- blanching will not give the vegetable the desired protection while over-blanching will cause significant nutrient loss.

When you have finished blanching, remove the artichoke pieces with a slotted spoon to a colander to drain. The artichoke pieces should be packed tightly into a freezer container and then topped with lemon water. Seal the container and label and date prior to placing it in the freezer.  The artichokes should be defrosted prior to steaming or boiling again.

Vacuum sealer method

The method is the same except that instead of the artichokes being stored in a freezer container with a lid, they are stored in a vacuum sealer bag.

Preserving in Oil

As an alternative to freezing, small artichoke heads can be preserved in oil. Clean the heads, remove tough stalks, cut off tops, and then cut the heads twice lengthwise. Boil in water to which white wine, salt, and vinegar are added. After draining, place in jars and cover with olive oil flavored with capers, oregano, or chili pepper.

This preservation method is widely used in Southern Italy. Artichokes preserved in this manner left unopened will keep about 2-3 years. After opening, they should be refrigerated and used within a year.