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A unique vegetable

March 31, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

The artichoke is a vegetable that might intimidate the uninitiated - but the culinary challenge is one worth tackling.

"They look like hand grenades," said Pat Hopper, manager of the California Artichoke Advisory Board in artichoke growing hot spot Castroville, Calif. "But they're so much fun to eat."

A unique vegetable, the artichoke is actually the bud of a large thistle plant. A shield of tough, spiny leaves protects the vegetable's small, tender heart. Artichokes can be steamed, boiled or cooked in the microwave for purists' enjoyment, and used in appetizers, soups, salads, entrees, even desserts. Many artichoke lovers enjoy their veggies steamed and the leaves dunked in melted butter or a mayonnaise-based dip.

One large artichoke contains 25 calories, no fat, 170 milligrams of potassium, and is a good source of vitamin C and fiber, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Naturalists say artichokes stimulate the digestive processes - increasing the production of hydrochloric acid, bile, pancreatic enzymes and intestinal enzymes. Artichokes also are credited with reducing nausea, colic and gas.

California produces nearly all of the nation's supply of fresh artichokes, which are grown as perennials. Full-grown artichoke plants cover an area about 6 feet in diameter and reach heights of up to 4 feet. Harvesting the vegetables is extremely labor-intensive - driving up the costs of artichokes - because the work must be done by hand. In addition, the same field must be harvested every seven days during peak season since artichoke buds on the same plant mature at different times, according to the California Artichoke Advisory Board at www.artichokes.org.

California artichokes are available year-round, but the peak seasons are March through May, and October.

"The artichokes are coming on now like gangbusters," Hopper said.

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