It’s a long and circuitous tale, but the simple answer goes back to the early 1970s (Boomers: Remember those days of college protests?). The student body became aggrieved at the administration’s refusal yield to their demands in several budgetary areas. In protest, when they were fully empowered to pick a mascot, chose a funny looking vegetable. Go to http://www.gochokes.com/ if you don’t believe this.
Never having tasted an artichoke until I arrived in France many years ago, I was immediately smitten, particularly when I realized how easy they are to prepare (if you have the right shears and a good steamer), and how much fun to eat.
Artichokes are native to the Mediterranean, and most of the world’s crop is still grown in Europe. Italy leads in production, but they are cultivated in warm climates all over the planet, including in the mountains of Vietnam where I was surprised to see them. The vast majority of artichokes consumed in the United States come from Castroville (“The Artichoke Center of the World”, if you ignore the rest of the world) in coastal Monterey County, California.
The plant itself is a thistle, a relative to the pesky weeds that have pretty purple flowers but painful protective needles.
Artichokes can be simply trimmed and steamed, then eaten one leaf at a time, dipping in vinaigrette or mayonnaise, taking a break to trim out the fuzzy ‘choke’ in the center then eating the heart. Or, the cooked artichoke’s fuzz can be eliminated in the kitchen, and the whole thing stuffed with seasoned breadcrumbs, then baked (a little more decadent).
Baby artichokes do not require as much trimming. One personal favorite dish in Roman cuisine is “carciofa alla guida”, baby artichokes in the Jewish style, a specialty of the Trastevere neighborhood. These are simply baby artichokes fried in olive oil. Just delicious, and they can also be found at Fiorello’s in New York City.
Jarred, marinated baby artichokes are always there for the lazier artichoke lover who wants nice addition to antipasto.
As for Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, this vegetable tastes vaguely of artichoke, but it is not even remotely related.
Native to North America, this is a type of sunflower which produces tubers at its roots, and can turn into an invasive weed, so home gardeners, beware!