It may not be from outer space, but when in bloom, Cynara cardunculus looks like it’s from an alien landscape.
Have you eaten one of these oversize blooms lately?
If you haven’t guessed what the subject of this article is yet, here it is: artichoke. The origin reference to Antarctica will be explained later.
Middle English archecokk, hortichock, artychough, hartichoake, heartychokey. This is perhaps one of the most hilarious collections of Anglicizations ever produced by Middle English. From articiocco (tall stump), 15th century Northern Italian variant of Italian arcicioffo and 16th century Medieval Italian carciofani, from Old Spanish alcachofa, in turn from Arabic al-qarshuf or al-kharshuf, al-kursuf, ref. Abū Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariyyā al–Rāzī. Compare to Modern Arabic al-shuk (thistle). Greek kaktos (spiny plant) referring to cardoon was the root word used by Linnaeus in classifying the cultivated old world thistles, which is of course the root for new world cactus. Genus Cynara is derived from this Greek root word as well.
Artichokes are rather fascinating flowering specimens. They are a part of the ‘true thistles’ tribe, Cardueae, also referred to as Cynareae, which you will see reflected in the classification of artichokes as Cynara. The thistles are part of the sunflower family, the Asteraceae, which is also the family containing dandelions, marigolds, tarragon, mugwort, chicory, lettuce, chrysanthemum and dahlias. All of the species in this family have tiny flowers collected in a cup or saucer shaped head (capitulum) that is surrounded on the lower side by bracts (modified small leaves), with or without spiny or hairy structures. The flowers are small and tightly packed, often with tubular narrow (disc) flowers in the center and sometimes with longer, flattened (ray) flowers along the edge, like in a sunflower. One group of Asteracea that includes dandelions has only ray flowers. Thistles have tubular disc flowers, while the bracts are long and initially cover the whole capitulum.
The Asteracea family has been proven to be some of the most ancient flowering plants. In 2012 a remarkable detailed fossil of a flowering plant was found, believed to be the progenitor for the entire Asteraceae family:
A beautifully preserved fossil identified as being of an early relative of the Asteraceae, or aster, family nearly 50 million years old suggests the plant family, which has now colonized much of the planet, originated in South America after Gondwana separated, forming South America, Australia, Africa, Antarctica and India.
Researcher Dr. Viviana Barreda and colleagues of the Argentinian Museum of National Sciences in Buenos Aires found the perfectly preserved fossil of two flowering heads in the north-west Pategonia region, in rocks along the river Picheleufu in what is now north-western Argentina, and dated it to 47.5 million years old. At the time the region was sub-tropical, with average temperatures of around 19°C.
Fossils of the Asteraceae are rare and most often only fossilized pollen grains are found, but the Patagonian fossil features two complete flowers complete with winged seeds, petals and the stems.
Even older evidence has been found in fossilized pollen grains from the Late Cretaceous era of Antarctica, when it was lush and tropical, 76-66 million years ago. Now the most prolific flowering family of plants on the planet, Asteraceae’s success is attributed to a combination of specialized physical defenses such as spines, the storing of energy as unpalatable, bitter fructans like inulin and a special flower combo of both tiny, prolific, pollen-laden receptacles and brightly colored inflorescences that attract pollinators of many kinds.
As far as nutrition beneficial to humans goes, artichoke contains the bioactive agents apigenin and luteolin. The total antioxidant capacity of artichoke flower heads is one of the highest reported for any vegeatble – higher than tomatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, onions, spinach, kale, broccoli, green beans, peas or or practically any other culinary vegetable you could name off the top of your head.
Cynarine is a unique chemical constituent in Cynara. The majority of the cynarine found in an artichoke is located in the pulp of the leaves, though dried leaves and stems of artichoke also contain it. It inhibits taste receptors, making water (and other foods and drinks) seem sweet beyond their normal flavor. An artichoke’s tender, edible parts are one of the richest dietary sources of polyphenols with high bioavailability and contain high quality minerals. Several clinical studies have shown that the bioactive properties of globe artichoke are due to the high content of polyphenolic compounds such as hydroxycinnamates and flavonoids. This is the main chemical that is responsible for improved cardiovascular function in vivo, lowering cholesterol and eliminating inflammation that can lead to heart disease.
Silymarin is another potent chemical found in most members of the thistle family. While milk thistle extract usually steals the limelight for having large concentrations of this liver-supporting flavonoid, artichokes have a significant amount as well. Silymarin exerts membrane-stabilizing and antioxidant activity and promotes hepatocyte regeneration. It also reduces localized inflammation and inhibits fibrogenesis (formation of cirrhosis) in the liver.
The best way to get the most out of your artichokes, at least in a nutritional sense, is to simply trim and steam them. However, I would like to share a more creative application for them, a Greek-Italian recipe that includes another biochemically unique plant food: fava beans. Make sure you do not have favism – a potentially deadly susceptibility to jaundice and red blood cell degradation caused by Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PDD). It is more common than you may think – G6PDD is the second most common enzyme deficiency and it is estimated that 400 million people worldwide have the X-linked recessive mutation for favism. On a positive note, if you do have favism, you probably won’t die of malaria any time soon.
Aginares Me Koukia - Artichokes and Fava Beans
Artichoke hearts are combined with fava beans and aromatics for a lovely springtime side dish that goes well with roasted lamb. This is a Greek recipe typical of old style, simple country cooking.
- 8 large globe or heritage artichokes trimmed of spines, choke removed (see instructions below)
- 8 ounces fava beans shelled
- 2 medium carrots sliced 1/4" on bias
- 1 medium leek, white and pale green parts cleaned and sliced 1/4"
- 2 tbsp fresh dill roughly chopped
- 1/4 cup olive oil not extra virgin
- 3 cups water or vegetable broth
- 1 lemon cut into 8 wedges
- 1 loaf rustic bread for serving
Trim the artichokes: Cut off dry end of stem and peel skin from stem with a vegetable peeler or paring knife. Cut off top third of artichoke bracts. Peel away the tough outer leaves until only the much softer, paler inner leaves remain. Snip any remaining thorny tips from inner leaves with kitchen shears. Take a teaspoon and scrape away at the spiky and furry center choke until you've scooped it out. Rinse well. Place in cold lemon water until ready to use.
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, leek and carrots; season with salt and pepper to taste. Saute for 10 minutes until onions become tender and just begin to brown.
Add the cleaned artichokes to the pot. Continue to cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Pour in the water or broth. Bring to a boil; reduce heat to medium low and simmer for 20 minutes, until the stems of the artichokes are firm-tender.
Add fava beans and continue to simmer for an additional 5-10 minutes until both beans and artichokes are very tender. Take off the heat and stir in dill. There should be a good amount of brothiness to this dish.
Drizzle with olive oil, squeeze over some lemon juice and garnish with additional dill fronds. Check for saltiness and season to taste. Serve with lemon wedges and torn pieces of hearty rustic bread to soak up the broth.
You can substitute 1 package of frozen artichoke hearts or two cans of brined (not oil packed) artichoke hearts if whole artichokes are not in season. If using canned, add artichoke hearts and fava beans at the same time and cook only until beans are tender.
Green beans or lima beans can be substituted for fava beans.
The broth can be thickened with 1 tablespoon of flour mixed with 1 tablespoon of lemon juice. Add in the last 5 minutes of cooking.