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Rarely is a vegetable so closely identified with a particulare town: If you find yourself in Castroville, California, about a hundred miles south of San Francisco, you can’t help but notice the artichoke-themed murals splashed across buildings or the artichoke hats and tatoos adorning proud locals. Or if you happen to visit in May, you can attend a harvest festival featuring an artichoke queen. (The first beauty to wear the crown, incidentally, was Norma Jean Baker, later known as Marilyn Monroe.)

The Italian immigrants who arrived here in the 1920’s quickly discovered that the mild climate of coastal Monterey County provided the perfect environment for growing what they called carciofi, beloved throughout the Mediterranean region since Roman times. Today, if you’ve ever eaten an artichoke grown in the United States, it most likely came from the fields around Castroville.

To many Americans, though, artichokes are still a bit of a mystery. For one thing, with all those layers of impenetrable-looking spiny green leaves, they seem more like pine cones than something edible. The spine, along with a spiky purple bloom, affirm the artichoke’s membership in the thisle family. What we call and artichoke is actually the flower but of the plant.

But steaming fresh artichokes, divested of their toughest leaves, is really very simple, and the flavor of the remaining leaves – typically plucked one by one and dipped in a sauce or melted butter, then scraped between the teeth to remove the flesh – is haunting and complex. Dig out the choke with a spoon and savor (at last!) the prized heart.

Crunchy, creamy and sweet! These Baked Artichoke Hearts are fantastic!

“I have often wondered who was the first person to realize that eating an artichoke was a good idea.”
~ Chris Cosentino

Maple Bundt Cake Photo