Artichokes are one of the most popular vegetables in America. They are widely used in many dishes such as salads, soups, stews, sandwiches and desserts. Artichokes have been cultivated since ancient times and they were first domesticated in China around 2500 B.C., where they were called “water chestnuts.” In Europe, the potato was introduced into Italy during the Roman Empire period (about 500 A.D. to 300 A.D.) and it soon became a staple food throughout the Mediterranean region. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that potatoes began becoming popular in North America due to their adaptability to cold climates.
The earliest known reference of artichokes dates back to Chinese writings from 2400 B.C.. The name “artichoke” comes from Greek words meaning “a plant with leaves” or “an edible leaf.”
There are two main species of artichokes, Brassica oleracea and Brassica napus. Both species grow wild in temperate regions of the world. The difference between them lies mainly in the size, shape and color of their leaves. Oleraceas produce small greenish-yellow flowers while napus produce large red berries that fall off when ripe.
In addition to being eaten raw, both species are also cooked into salads, sauces and soups. They have a nutty flavor and a fleshy texture. They are not related to the common globe artichoke, but they do resemble them in size and appearance.
The word “choke” in the name of this vegetable refers to the fact that all its edible parts consist mainly of fibers and, therefore, can “choke” you if consumed in large quantities.
The plant is a perennial, but it is grown as an annual, mainly in California, Arizona and New Mexico. It requires very fertile soil with excellent drainage.
During the harvest period, the artichoke plant produces a flower with a unique appearance. It has a green base that forms a purple “crown” with yellow petals. The flower also has a thorny “stand” that keeps it upright.
There are many species that belong to the same genus as the globe artichoke and they all have edible flowers. Many other types of artichokes exist, but only five species are used commercially:
1. The Mediterranean or Algerian artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is by far the most common type of artichoke consumed worldwide.
It is easily recognized by its large flower heads and long thorny flower stalks. It is mostly cultivated in the Mediterranean region, California and central Chile.
2. The cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) is a tall plant that grows in the Mediterranean region, Northern Africa and the United States.
It has a spiny stem and bright blue flowers. Its edible parts are its thick stalk and immature flower buds. It is mainly used for soups and sauces, as well as in the preparation of the French artichoke bottoms known as “gigandes.”
3. The French or Globe Artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is a smaller variety of the globe artichoke that is commonly grown in France, Italy, Algeria and Tunisia.
It has larger and fewer leaves than the other species.
4. The sugar-leaved or Sicilian artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is a variety with small, mildly-tasting leaves and grows mainly in the Mediterranean region.
5. The cardo (Cynara cardunculus) is a spiny plant native to the Canary Islands.
It has larger flowers than the cardoon and it’s used primarily for decoration as its immature flower buds are poisonous when cooked.
In ancient times the artichoke was often used as a medicine. The ancient Greeks considered it a powerful aphrodisiac, while the Romans believed it had beneficial effects on the liver. In Spain and other Mediterranean countries, it was traditionally given to victims of liver poisoning in order to cause them to vomit. It was also given to women after childbirth to reduce pain and speed up the expulsion of the placenta.
The Spanish also used it to treat jaundice. It is believed that a powerful substance contained in the vegetable, called cynarine, has strong chemical properties and may have certain effects on the liver.
In modern times, artichoke has been used therapeutically to help with stomach and digestive problems such as acid reflux, ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome. It has also been used to treat high cholesterol, kidney and liver disorders and even depression. The high amount of fiber in artichokes helps prevent and reduce problems with constipation and irritable bowel syndrome.
The cynarine, responsible for the vegetable’s bitter flavor, stimulates the secretion of bile, which helps with fat digestion and the overall absorption of nutrients. In Mexico and South America, it is used to treat liver problems such as hepatitis and cirrhosis. It also helps stimulate the production of certain substances that have a positive effect on the digestive process. It has also been used to treat sexual dysfunction in men, such as premature ejaculation.
In Italian cooking artichokes are often served as a side dish and eaten with cheese. Olive oil may be added to the leaves and juices may be squeezed out of them before eating. They may also be eaten cold and sometimes appear in salads. In most Arabic and Turkish cuisines artichokes are added to soups and stews. North Africans may eat the leaves and head of the plant as a vegetable.
In Spain it may be turned into a jam or a wine.
In most places around the world artichokes can be preserved by pickling, drying, freezing or canning. They are often added to soups and stews both for flavor and as a thickening agent. Roasted and salted artichokes are popular in Mediterranean cuisine.
In the United States, French and Mediterranean restaurants often feature artichokes on their menus. Artichoke leaves are also often used to make a dipping sauce for bread in these restaurants.
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