My first foray into a closer relationship with artichokes began as a work assignment. Drive to Lompoc, California, chat with a farmer, get some pictures and get back to Los Angeles without becoming a part of the daily human-and-metal gridlock. Coffee in hand, I raced up the 5, beating traffic and made it with a few minutes to spare.
Until that point, I categorized artichokes as one of those foods shrouded in history, enjoyed by Romans and Greeks but not necessarily an everyday part of my kitchen. Spiky, thorny, gorgeous yet inhospitable, my little mind was about to be opened to the joys of this thistle.
I spent the day with Steve Jordan. Steve is a man who knows his chokes. In fact, his level of knowledge is quite intimidating. Serious, polite and quiet, Steve is a forth generation California farmer who has been growing artichokes for over twenty years. California grows the majority of artichokes consumed in the United States, and they've been grown here since the 1800s when Italian immigrants brought them to the west. The coastal weather of areas like Lompoc and Castroville are perfect for artichokes, and here they thrive like crazy.
Steve maintains over 550 acres of green and purple artichokes, and when he's not tilling and toiling the land he spends time in Italy, the artichoke's country of origin, to meet with other artichoke farmers and share ideas and information. He's even a member of the global artichoke congress - who knew?
I always thought an artichoke was an artichoke was an artichoke. Boy, was I wrong. Steve actually spends many years nurturing, testing and growing various types of artichokes, many of them starting from European seedlings and spending time in his lab before making their way to the field. It's important to note that his artichokes are not genetically modified, thank goodness. If he discovers a variety he likes and believes can do well commercially then he plants it, although it takes anywhere from 2-7 years before it will end up on our tables. Over the years he's developed green and purple artichokes like the Campania, Fiesole and Lyon and he's always on the lookout for new, delicious varieties.
Then there's the taste. An artichoke fresh from the field is like a green gift from heaven, full of delicious, grassy flavor that is delicious by itself, even raw. Lightly steamed, drizzled with extra virgin olive oil, drawn butter or a simple aioli and I could skip just about everything else and be a very happy man.
I'm happy to say that artichokes are now a part of my regular routine. Steamed, baked, stuffed, grilled or dipped, you basically can't go wrong with a hearty, fresh artichoke. I think those Romans were on to something indeed.