ChefTalk: It seems as if there are always fresh artichokes available in grocery stores. Is there a season for artichokes?
Tom Corneille: It's true, almost all the artichokes in this country are grown year round in a small area of California on the coast. But while there are artichokes available year round, the biggest harvests are usually around April/May and October. Artichokes are delicate to store though. Two weeks is stretching it and after that time, they lose premium flavor.
CT: Speaking of quality and flavor, how do you evaluate an artichoke? What should the consumer look for?
TC: Look for leaves that are tight against the center of the artichoke. Also, look at the bottom of the stem. The lighter the color where the stem was cut, the fresher the artichoke. If the cut portion of the stem is very dark, it is not a fresh artichoke. One can also hold it in your hand and feel how heavy it is. Usually, if they have a "heavy" feel, they are of good quality, although the thorned varieties are generally heavier than the thornless. A couple of other things: any darkening at the tips of the artichoke is an indicator of a less than fresh artichoke, and look for artichokes with a vivid green color.
CT: What about the varieties of artichokes?
TC: In general, artichokes are classed as to whether they are thorned or thornless, and whether they are summer or winter artichokes.
CT: During the year, you see fairly substantial price fluctuations for fresh artichokes. What accounts for this?
TC: It's a simple case of supply and demand. When there are few artichokes on the market, the price naturally climbs. It can be a pretty hot item during certain times of the year.
CT: I have seen enormous artichokes, tiny ones, and everything in between. What accounts for the different sizes of artichokes?
TC: It all depends where on the stem the artichoke or bud is growing. The higher up on the stem, the larger the artichoke. The tiny ones grow at the base of the stem.
CT: Out of curiosity, how do you like to eat artichokes?
TC: I have a weakness for simple battered and deep fried artichoke hearts. They are really great with a Béarnaise sauce. They just melt in your mouth and have the most amazing flavor.