Latin name: Cynara cardunculus 
Uses: vegetable, tea, liqueur 

Artichokes are the unopened flower buds of a plant in the thistle family. They grow on stalks 4 to 6 feet tall, surrounded by long, lobed, silvery-green leaves. The bud’s triangular bracts look like reptile scales, and only the thick part at their base — surrounding what’s known as the heart — is edible. The heart is covered with immature florets, known as the choke, which are usually scraped off before eating. Varieties range from conical to spherical in shape, and from bright green to deep purple in color. When open, the plant’s flowers are purple, and the hearts and leaves are no longer edible. 

Why is artichoke healthy?

It is hard to top the nutritional benefits of artichokes. They have the highest known antioxidant content of any vegetable, including the powerful liver-protecting flavonoid silymarin. They’re also one of the rare foods to contain both prebiotic and probiotic compounds, so they’re one-stop shopping for a healthy microbiome. 

What does artichoke taste like?

Distinctly vegetal and slightly bitter, artichokes also have a seductively savory flavor. Though unrelated, artichokes and asparagus both have a similarly grassy astringency and share affinities with some of the same foods. 

Where does artichoke grow?

Artichokes are domesticated descendants of the cardoon, a plant native to the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean region — especially Italy, Spain, and Egypt — remains a major producer, with the west coast of North and South America (including California, Argentina, and Peru) also contributing to the global crop.

How do I prepare artichoke and what do I pair it with?

You can boil or steam them whole and then eat the leaves one by one. Dunk them in melted butter, aioli, hollandaise, or a vinaigrette before scraping off the edible part with your teeth and then devour the heart when you reach it. All around the Mediterranean people stuff various mixtures of garlic, breadcrumbs, ground meat, herbs, spices, and nuts inside before braising them. In France, they’re braised in white wine and olive oil to make artichauts à la barigoule, and they take well to this sort of stewing. In Rome, “Jewish-style” artichokes are deep fried whole. 

Canned artichoke hearts are popular as a pizza topping and are often blended into a warm dip. Cynar, an Italian aperitif, features artichoke as its main botanical flavor. Artichokes love lemons, garlic, olive oil, mint, and parsley. Egg yolk sauces like aioli and hollandaise balance the plant’s gentle astringency beautifully, and some acidity from lemon or vinegar brightens up their mood considerably.

Surprising fact:

Artichokes contain an acid called cynarin which makes other foods taste sweeter. Because they throw your palate a little out of whack, they’re notoriously difficult to pair with wine.