Thursday, May 3, 2012

Grow Your Own Artichokes

I have finally figured out how to cook fresh artichokes. I began growing them in my garden a few years ago, but the ones I cooked were too tough to eat. I had never cooked fresh artichokes before growing the plants, so I didn’t really understand how much work is involved in preparing them for eating; the ones I had enjoyed all came in cans. 


Artichokes originated in the Mediterranean, and they are used to a dry climate without severe winters. In the US, commercial farms grow artichokes in California, along with other Mediterranean native plants that don’t tolerate SC’s climate, like olives. So I wasn’t sure if they’d live here or not, although I read enough about them to determine it might be possible.  I bought some seeds from Heavenly Seed, a company that sells seeds that do well in South Carolina.
Happy, healthy, artichoke plants


The first year, thinking that hot, humid summers would threaten the plants more than our winters, I started the seeds in the summer and set them out in the fall. They were still small when winter began, and the winter weather killed them. In the spring, I started more seeds, and set out the plants as soon as I could. They grew all summer, and were fairly large when winter began. I mulched them, and they survived the winter. The plants thrive in my garden, and now I have three large plants. 

If you live in the South and start seeds now, you should have enough time to get the quickly-growing plants large enough to survive next winter, especially if you place a thick layer of mulch around the roots. If you have artichoke-growing friends, it's also possible to get a sprout from the side of their plant, including the roots, and plant it in your own garden, just as you would any other perennial. 
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Artichoke that's ready to pick at the top, with smaller bud below
The three plants provide me with plenty of artichokes. The edible portion of the artichoke is actually a flower bud. If the gardener does not pick the artichoke, it flowers into a purple thistle-like bloom; the plant would make a beautiful addition to a perennial flower bed.
 
Like most plants, artichokes like rich, well-drained soil. Natives of the Mediterranean’s dry climate, they are pickier about drainage than many plants, so don’t plant them where there roots will be in soggy soil. Mulch them to prevent weeds, and water them when the soil dries until the plants are established. After they are established, they are as easy to maintain as any other perennial. Cut the artichokes when they are the size you desire, just as you might pick flower buds before the flower opens. When you tire of artichokes, let the buds open and flower.

Trimmed whole artichokes steaming in preparation for cooking
Many cookbooks have recipes for preparing fresh artichokes, or directions are available here. I won’t try to tell you how to prepare them here, but I’ll share the obstacles that caused me to serve some guests tough artichokes: you must cook whole artichokes for about 45 minutes before they are tender enough to eat, and you must cook the hearts about 20 minutes before they are tender enough. Even if you plan to cook them in some other way by grilling them or stuffing them, you still must steam them for 30-45 minutes first. I did not want to steam lovely fresh vegetables so long, but you must or they are inedible. You will also feel like you are wasting a lot of the artichoke, but you aren’t, you’re just discarding the inedible portion. Someone must have been very hungry when he or she decided to eat an artichoke for the first time.
Battered and fried artichoke hearts.  I'm from the South, and I can't help it: this is my favorite way to eat them so far.  I steamed them for about 20 minutes before frying them.
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