Artichokes are one of the rare plants from which we consume only the unopened flower bud. Along with one of the others — capers — it originates in the arid hills of the Mediterranean basin, a place where freezing temperatures are rare and the environment is so dry that it is difficult to wring more than a few drops of water from the air in summer.
Botanically speaking, artichokes are an enormous thistle, plants known for their tough and thorny character. But the artichoke is a thistle of many layers — peel them back and you will find the soft, tender heart, a vegetable with a strange mix of sweet and bitter flavors.
Though esteemed for their edible buds, artichokes are aesthetically rewarding, as well. They seem almost prehistoric in form, with a clump of warty grey-green leaves 4 feet long splaying out from a single base. Leave the buds to open on the plant and they surprise you with a radiant indigo light streaming from the filamentous florets.
Castroville, California, a small town in Salinas Valley known as the Artichoke Capital of the World, hosts a festival in honor of the vegetable each summer. In 1947, a woman named Norma Jean - who later became known as Marilyn Monroe - was crowned Castroville's first Artichoke Queen.