There are so many wonderful vegetables available to us in Spain that we thought over the next few months we would write some articles about some of the most popular ones. All of these are readily available on the many local markets as well as in supermarkets.
Globe Artichoke – alcachofa
This popular vegetable is a variety of thistle cultivated as a food. The edible portion of the plant consists of the flower buds before the flowers come into bloom. The budding Artichoke flower-head is a cluster of budding small flowers with bracts on an edible fleshy base known as the heart. The buds bloom into a beautiful purple/blue head similar to a thistle flower, but the structure then changes to a coarse, barely edible form. The plant can grow up to 2mtrs high, with silvery leaves.
Artichokes are grown throughout the Mediterranean and are produced from seeds or root cuttings. They need good soil, regular watering and feeding, plus frost protection in winter. Rooted suckers can be planted each year, so mature specimens can be disposed of after a few years, as each individual plant lives only a few years. The peak season for artichoke harvesting is the spring, but they can continue to be harvested throughout the summer, with another peak period in mid autumn. When harvested, Artichokes are cut from the plant, leaving an inch or two of stem. They possess good keeping qualities, frequently remaining quite fresh for two weeks or longer.
Globe Artichokes are frequently prepared by removing all but 5–10 mm or so of the stem. To remove thorns, which may interfere with eating, around a quarter of each scale should be cut off. Artichokes can be boiled or steamed and salt may be added to the water. The core of the stem tastes similar to the Artichoke heart and is edible. Covered Artichokes, in particular those that have been cut, can turn brown. Placing them in water slightly acidified with vinegar or lemon juice can prevent this discoloration.
Artichoke leaves can be removed one at a time and the fleshy base eaten with hollandaise, vinegar, butter, mayonnaise, alioli, lemon juice, or other sauces. The fibrous upper part of each leaf is usually discarded. The heart is eaten when the inedible ‘choke’ has been peeled away from the base and discarded. The thin leaves covering the choke are also edible. The remaining concave-shaped heart can be filled with meat, then fried or baked in a savoury sauce. They can also be stuffed with lamb and other spices or a mixture of bread crumbs, garlic, oregano, parsley, grated cheese, or sausage. The mixture is pushed into the spaces at the base of each leaf and into the centre before boiling or steaming. In Spain, the more tender, younger and smaller Artichokes are the most popular. They can be sprinkled with olive oil and left in hot ashes in a barbecue, sautéed in olive oil and garlic, with rice as a paella, or sautéed and combined with eggs in a tortilla.
Artichokes can be made into “Artichoke tea”. The flower portion is put into water and consumed as a tisane. It has a slightly bitter woody taste.
Artichoke is also the primary flavour of the 33-proof Italian liqueur Cynar which can be served over ice as an aperitif or as a cocktail with orange juice.
The total antioxidant capacity of Artichoke flower heads is one of the highest reported for vegetables. The majority of the ‘cynarine’ found in Artichoke is located in the pulp of the leaves, though dried leaves and stems of Artichoke also contain it. It inhibits taste receptors, making water and other foods and drinks seem sweet.
Artichokes have been known to aid digestion, hepatic and gall bladder function. It can also reduce cholesterol levels which diminishes the risk of arteriosclerosis and coronary heart disease.