Produce Pete: The ABCs of Artichokes

Local fruit and vegetable expert "Produce Pete" explains why artichokes deserve a place on your Thanksgiving table.

A relative of the thistle, artichokes are high in antioxidants, fiber and vitamins C and K. Photo by Susan Bloom

If your family is anything like mine, Thanksgiving has always had its own special traditions, and for as long as I can remember, here were some of ours.

Growing up in a family-run business, Napolitano’s Produce in Bergenfield, our store was open every day except Christmas. On Thanksgiving, we were open for half a day and mom would be cooking upstairs (we lived above the store) while pop and the rest of us would be working downstairs; at 2 pm, we’d close and head upstairs for our Thanksgiving dinner. After we ate, pop would lay down for a few hours, then get up and begin the long drive to Vermont to pick up Christmas trees that we could start selling at the store. The only thing he ever wanted mom to pack him for his big trip was her stuffed artichokes (assuming there were some left from our dinner)! I never saw a man who loved artichokes more than him; warm or cold, he ate them right up.

My family is crazy for artichokes and there isn’t a holiday where artichokes aren’t on our table, especially Thanksgiving. My wife Bette has proudly carried on the tradition of my mom’s recipe (though mom would put anchovies and raisins in her recipe and Bette doesn’t). From my father and his brothers and sisters to my children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, we all love artichokes. Believe it or not, even my late golden retriever, Montana, would sit in the kitchen while Bette was making stuffed artichokes and bark until she gave him some!

The ABCs of Artichokes

A favorite in Spain, Italy, and other Mediterranean countries for hundreds of years, artichokes are actually the giant, unopened buds of a flowering plant and an edible relative of the thistle. Although they take a little time to eat—there’s no way you can gobble down an artichoke—they’re fun to dismantle, and the tender flesh at the base of the leaves and especially at the heart has a distinctive, sweet and nutty taste that’s truly delicious.

The largest crop of artichokes is still produced in Mediterranean countries, but California is the biggest supplier in the U.S. (particularly the San Francisco-area town of Castroville, which dubs itself the “Artichoke Capital of the World”).

In our area, three types of artichokes are most popular. The globe type of artichoke is the most common, with a large, round shape and smallish barb on the tips of the leaves, while the oval artichoke is very thorny, with a longer, more pointed leaf (they both taste the same and can be cooked in the same way, but I find globe artichokes to be more tender). There are also baby artichokes, which are often marinated whole in vinegar and oil after being washed and dethorned.

While peak season for California producers is in March-May, artichokes often show up in the fall and subsequently become a perfect dish for the Thanksgiving table.

Strategic Selection

When selecting artichokes, look for fat, firm buds with dense, tightly-packed leaves of a uniform dusty green. Though one or two black spots shouldn’t be a concern, lots of black spots, dull color, or opened leaves indicate an older artichoke that will have a woody taste. Gently pull back the central leaves, taking care not to prick yourself on the thorns, and look into the heart; if there’s no black showing inside, the artichoke is good. At home you can be more aggressive—turn the artichoke upside down and give it a good whack or two on the counter to make the leaves open out more easily.

Artichokes that have developed purpling on the leaves have been exposed to too much hot sun and will be much less tender. An artichoke that shows some bronzing and peeling has had a touch of frost, which won’t hurt the flavor (and may in fact improve it). Since artichokes are quite perishable, it’s best to use them as soon as possible, refrigerating for up to one week only if necessary.

Produce Pete discusses artichokes with NBC anchor Gus Rosendale on a recent segment of NBC Weekend Today in New York. Photo courtesy of Pete Napolitano
Produce Pete demonstrates the proper selection and preparation of artichokes on a recent segment of NBC Weekend Today in New York. Photo courtesy of Pete Napolitano

Preparing Artichokes

Whichever of the dozens of ways you decide to prepare your artichokes (raw, fried, creamed, marinated, stuffed, etc.), be sure to avoid cooking them in an aluminum pot because it will turn them a gray-green color. To prepare them for the pot, rinse the artichokes in cold water, handling them carefully so that you don’t prick yourself on their pointed barbs. While the barbs are softer and easier to handle after the artichoke is cooked, many people opt to remove them beforehand by snipping off the tips of the leaves with kitchen shears or scissors.

Though my nephew Kurt and niece Nicole have taken on the heavy lifting of Thanksgiving dinner for the Napolitano family in recent years, Bette still lends a hand and her stuffed artichokes are always a must-have holiday menu item. Following is her recipe, which I hope can help add a new holiday tradition to your table.

For me, food has always been linked to memories that I treasure, so from our family to yours, here’s wishing you all the best for a very happy and healthy Thanksgiving!

Bette’s Super-Delicious Stuffed Artichokes

(makes 4 stuffed artichokes)

Stuffed artichokes are a favorite in the Napolitano household, especially at Thanksgiving. Photo courtesy of Pete Napolitano

Ingredients:

4 medium-sized artichokes
2 cups breadcrumbs
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ cup (1 stick) butter, melted
¼ cup water
¾ cup olive oil
2 tablespoons parsley flakes

Directions:

Rinse each artichoke well, then remove the small outer leaves from the bottom row around the artichoke, cut off the stem, and slice about one inch off the top. In a large bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese, garlic powder and pepper. Add the melted butter, water, and oil and mix well, adding more water or oil if necessary to make the stuffing very moist. Turn the artichokes upside down and press firmly to spread the leaves, then turn right side up and stand the artichokes in a large pot with about 1½ inches of water in the bottom. Cover and steam over medium-high heat for about 20-25 minutes or until the artichokes are tender, checking the water level occasionally and adding more water as needed.

Stuff the breadcrumb mixture into the center and inside surrounding layers of leaves. Put into a pan, cover tightly with foil, and place in a 350-degree oven for approximately 20 minutes (or else put onto a microwavable plate and microwave for approximately 3-4 minutes) and enjoy!

About “Produce Pete” Napolitano
With over 65 years of experience in the produce industry, New Jersey’s own “Produce Pete” Napolitano is a renowned fruit and vegetable expert, author, and television personality who’s appeared on a highly-popular segment on NBC’s Weekend Today in New York broadcast every Saturday mornings for over 27 years.  For more information, visit Pete’s website.

About Susan Bloom
A contributor to New Jersey Monthly and a variety of other well-known local and national publications, Susan Bloom is an award-winning New Jersey-based freelance writer who covers topics ranging from health and lifestyle to business, food and more. She’s collaborated with Produce Pete on a broad range of articles for nearly a decade.

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