Now’s the Time for Best-Eating Artichokes
By Robbie Sigona
There are many reasons why I love artichokes. The flavor of a locally grown artichoke is unmatchable, but the reason I love them the most is because of how a few steamed artichokes bring everyone to the table for a fun, hands-on appetizer.
Artichokes are available year-round, but we’re just entering the best time of year for fantastic, locally grown artichokes: artichokes are at their tastiest and meatiest from March through mid-April.
Did you know nearly 80 percent of the artichokes grown in California come from Monterey County? Castroville, the “Artichoke Capital of the World” is nestled in Monterey County and that’s where the climate is perfect: the warm and cool air masses meet there, creating summer fog and cool, not-so-dry weather. Artichokes love it.
One of the best-known farms in Castroville is Pezzini Farms. It was founded in the 1930s and is still run by the Pezzini family, with Tony and his dad, Guido, at the helm. We’ve partnered with Pezzini Farms for years to bring in fresh-picked Green Globe artichokes that are picked, packed and delivered to our stores in less than 24 hours.
“The crop is looking pretty good this year,” said Tony Pezzini. “There was a little frost last week, which makes for what we call ‘frost-kissed’ artichokes, but we should be about frost-free in about two weeks.
“The frost-kissed artichokes will have what looks like black smudges on their leaves, but there’s nothing wrong with them,” said Tony. “The frost is actually good for ‘chokes because when it’s colder they grow slower, so they get a bit meatier and taste a lot nuttier. That’s why the ‘chokes harvested from March to mid-April are the best eating artichokes.”
An artichoke plant is actually part of the thistle family. The inside of the artichoke is called the choke, which artichoke lovers will know is fuzzy, prickly and inedible. If left on the plant, the choke will grow and pop through the top, producing a beautiful purple blossom, just like a flower. Tony says that this is why artichokes harvested towards the end of April and into May are less meaty: It’s around that time of year that everything is blooming – all the artichokes want to do is blossom and flower, just like other garden plants.
If you drive along Route 156 in Castroville you’ll still see the original Pezzini family farm stand, which has been in operation just about as long as the farm. Some customers return year after year, making it a family tradition to visit Pezzini Farms; there’s just something really special in going right to the srouce. You can stop in for fresh artichokes, French fried artichokes and more. They even ship, so be sure to check their website for more details.
Tony says they’re a relatively small operation, so they exert greater control over the harvest. Not only is it their small, hands-on farming operation that makes Pezzini Farms artichokes unique, it’s the Green Globe variety they grow.
“The root for the Green Globe variety of artichokes we grow came with my family from Europe in the 1920s,“ said Tony. “It’s difficult to get artichokes started with a seed, so growing ours from the original root gave us our niche. We operate about 100 acres and practice crop rotation with our perennial plants. Annuals are grown now from seeds at some farms, but they don’t have the same meat or flavor.
“We put a lot of care into it — we really baby the plants and artichokes and we’re able to do that because of the smaller size of our operation,” said Tony. “I wouldn’t want it any other way.”
Pezzini picks in the morning and call it quits no later than 1 o’clock in the afternoon. Once picked, the artichokes are taken directly to the cooler where they are packed – something that also sets Pezzini Farms apart. Some of the bigger farms have to harvest all day long, leaving the harvested artichokes in the field, only to be scooped up at the end of the day for hydro-cooling. By then they’ve been in the sun and have lost some flavor and nutrients.
We get everything from jumbo-sized artichokes to the all-edible baby artichokes from Pezzini Farms. A little known fact about baby artichokes is that they aren’t harvested before they’re fully grown – that’s as big as they’ll ever get. Baby artichokes grow lower on the plant and their stalk is within the plant. Large and jumbo artichokes, meanwhile, grow from the top of the stalks and medium-sized artichokes grow from the middle. Baby artichokes don’t develop an inner choke so you can eat them whole. More on that in a minute.
Artichokes are rich with potassium, vitamin C, magnesium and fiber. They have so much fiber — one medium choke contains about 10 grams of fiber – that the FDA has rated artichokes an excellent source of fiber.
Now, back to the baby artichokes. Besides being pretty cute, they’re all edible. Baby artichokes are basically all meat as there is no choke, that inner fuzzy blossom. My uncle Paul Sigona makes the best baby artichokes I’ve ever tasted. His secret…no parboiling, just sautéing after they’ve been striped down to the tender part.
There are many ways to cook artichokes and even more ways to enjoy them – dip them in butter, mayo, or aioli, stuff them with bread crumbs, garlic and olive oil, or just eat steamed artichokes plain with a squirt of lemon – no dip necessary. Here are a few recipes – enjoy!