All Choked Up : The artichoke is a perfect complement to any number of main courses--and, for some people, a satisfying meal in itself.
The thistle is generally a pesky and troublesome weed. But there is a relative of the thistle that produces a green, globular flower head and is a culinary treat.
This thistlelike herb is otherwise known as the artichoke.
Consumed for the edible edge at the bottom of each leathery leaf and for its meaty heart, the artichoke is a perfect complement to any number of main-course dishes.
And, for some folks, the artichoke makes a satisfying meal all by itself.
Artichokes can be steamed or stuffed, microwaved or marinated--whatever your preference--and a plentiful harvest from the Oxnard-Camarillo area will be available through the winter.
Cindy Wileman, owner of Cindy’s Produce in Santa Paula, is one of numerous roadside outlets now offering locally grown artichokes throughout Ventura County.
“Depending on the size, I sell them for 10 for $1; the larger ones sell at 6 for $1. The size I get in can change from week to week, depending on the harvest.”
Wileman’s supplier is Purepak of Oxnard, which designates 36 acres for the exotic-looking plant. According to Dean Walsh, president of Purepak, there are only three commercial artichoke growers in the county.
Walsh said Purepak, which grows organically about 40 seasonal vegetable varieties, was the first Ventura County grower to enter the California artichoke market.
It is a market commanded by the huge artichoke acreage of the Castroville area. (California’s artichoke regions include the Lompoc area and the Imperial Valley.)
“We got into it a little over four years ago,” Walsh said. Before cultivation could start, there was one little matter to deal with--seed.
“When we got started,” he said, “a Lompoc farming entity was testing many different seed types, trying to find one conducive to our climate. They tried seeds from Israel, Italy and others and finally came up with one that would work here in the Oxnard area.”
The search was arduous, but ironically, Purepak’s new seed strain did produce a crop nearly unmistakable from other commercially grown artichoke crops--at least those grown for the U.S. market.
“There’s really only one variety grown,” Walsh said. “That’s the Green Globe.”
The Green Globe classification comprises a variety of strains, he said.
Those include thorned and thornless types, tulip-shaped, cross-bred irregular-shaped versions, even some with purple shading. “These are all considered Green Globes,” he said.
Although popular in the U.S., the Green Globe varieties would not fare well in the European marketplace, Walsh said.
The European counterpart is known as the Magnifico and is purple.
“It’s just a matter of preference,” Walsh said.
“In the U.S., the green is preferred. Years ago, if Castroville had started with purple instead of green, we’d be eating purple artichokes here too.”
Given the market dominance of the Castroville area, other growers are left to sneak their product through a small window of opportunity.
“If they were able to grow year round,” Walsh said “it would knock us out of the market. They have the preferred artichoke.”
Peak harvest time arrives twice yearly for Castroville growers, spring and fall.
“That leaves winter and summer for the others,” Walsh said. Purepak harvests its “ ‘chokes” during winter only. The fledgling Ventura County winter harvest commences in November and reaches into February.
“We’re still treading new water,” Walsh said. “We’ll just have to sit tight and see how it goes.”
Organics to Market in Ventura is another roadside stand offering local artichokes.
Manager Bain Zietlow advises consumers to squeeze the artichoke for an indication of freshness.
“You want it to be firm,” he said. “Also, choose one with a nice green color and unblemished.”
If you come across lower-priced artichokes that appear less than fresh, Zietlow said, they needn’t necessarily be shunned.
“Even if the leaves are not as fresh-looking,” he said, “the hearts are still good for eating.”
* WHERE AND WHEN
Cindy’s Produce, 18814 E. Telegraph Road, Santa Paula. Open daily. Call 525-0747. Organics to Market, Telegraph Road and Olivas Park Drive, Ventura. Open daily.
SERVING SUGGESTION / STUFFED ARTICHOKES
4 to 6 artichokes
2 cups dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup olive oil
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup chopped parsley
Clean and remove stems from artichokes. Trim off leaf tips. Brush with lemon juice. Combine bread crumbs, 2 tablespoons olive oil, garlic, parsley and salt and pepper to taste. Stuff centers and between leaves of artichokes with breading.
Place artichokes snugly upright in baking pan. Fill halfway with water. Drizzle remaining 2 tablespoons oil over artichoke tops.
Cover and bake at 350 degrees for 1 1/2 hours or until artichokes are tender. Makes 4 to 6 servings.