Have a heart

Is every common vegetable going purple? Purple broccoli, purple cauliflower, purple carrots and purple bok choi now have pride of place in the catalog kaleidoscope, along with the more customary purple cabbage, lettuce and beans.

I say the more colorful antioxidants the better, so let’s give a hearty welcome to a new, gorgeous purple globe artichoke called Colorado Star.

Purple artichokes have long been part of the gene pool, both globe-shaped ones and the pointy kind, which have been easier to find. I grew a pointed heirloom called Violetta years ago and loved it. The heads were small but numerous, and kept bearing in fall long after the green ones had gone to seed.

What’s new about Colorado Star is that it’s the first purple one bred for annual production. Artichokes are perennials that normally start producing in their second year, when grown from seed. They must go through a chilling winter in order to make the flower buds we eat. But by sowing them in the warmth of the indoors in late winter, then giving them six weeks of the mildly cold outdoors in early spring, you trick them into producing in their first summer.

This process, known as vernalizing, was pioneered at a number of research stations. Then in the 1980s, a breeder in Imperial County, California, named Keith Mayberry developed Imperial Star, which could produce with a chilling period of only 10 days. That’s a boon to gardeners with winters too cold for overwintering artichokes outdoors, and to those with winters too mild for sufficient chilling.

Mayberry, now retired in Colorado, went on to cross Imperial Star with varieties he found in Peru and developed the first vernalized purple artichoke variety, Colorado Star.

So now, my magnificent, spiky artichoke plants are topped with deeply purple globes, a shape the Italians call marmole (“breast-shaped”). They appeared about 10 days before I normally expect artichokes, and add an extra note of glamour to an already beautiful crop. Any I leave uncut will tower over the garden like neon-blue torches, as the amazing thistle-like flowers start to bloom.

Our new colorful variety is very good to eat, and I’ll look forward to cooking with it, well into fall. Over the years I’ve tried various methods of preparing artichokes. I’ve boiled them, grilled them, and smashed them in a frying pan to flatten them, the way they do in Rome, with olive oil, garlic, herbs and a little water so that they steam a bit when the pan is covered.

In my experience, some moisture is essential to tenderize an artichoke’s firm flesh, but boiling can make them soggy and waterlogged and dilute their flavor. Steaming them (at least 45 minutes for large ones) is better. So is oven-braising in a covered casserole, along with olive oil, a small amount of water, and savory additions such as anchovies, garlic, capers, olives, parsley, rosemary and lemon. I’m hungry just writing that.

An artichoke is a savage beast that will prick your fingers and leave a bitter taste on them, but cooking tames it. The choice part is the heart — a circular plate at the bottom, with tender flesh extending into the lower parts of the leaves (which are technically bracts).

You pull the leaves off, dip them in melted butter, and draw them between your teeth, scraping out the good stuff. Then you eat the heart (also with butter) and, if you are enlightened, the stem. The stem of an artichoke is less touted than the rest, but every bit as succulent and tasty. You can leave it on or cut it off before cooking.

Cardoon, a close relative of the artichoke, is grown just for its leaf stems, which are wrapped and blanched to make them very soft and tender. But I’ve found no need to blanch artichoke stems, or even peel them. Rubbing the stems — or any parts — with lemon juice will keep their color from darkening.

It’s important to pick an artichoke when the bud is still closed. As the leaves start to open outward, the flesh will start to toughen. The first bud the plant produces will be the largest, and most of the rest, shooting out from lower on the main stem, will be smaller. But they also will take less time to cook.

I’m already thinking of baby artichokes, braised with garlic, and a nice glass of — no, not wine. The one bad thing you can say about an artichoke is that it pairs horribly with wine. Make that a cold beer.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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