Monday, April 15, 2013

Artichokes in the ‘heart’ of Texas

BROWNSVILLE — While more than 95 percent of U.S. artichoke production is currently in California, Mike Ortiz and his business partner, Jed Murray, of MO Produce in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, have been giving the artichoke a home where the armadillo and roadrunner roam.

Since 2007, Ortiz and Murray have been consulting with Dr. Daniel Leskovar of the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Uvalde on various aspects of artichoke production. Leskovar and fellow researchers have provided them research-based information and assistance on variety selection, transplantation, irrigation and various production methods so they might produce artichokes that will meet or exceed consumer expectations.

"There is currently some fledgling commercial artichoke production in the Rio Grande Valley and Winter Garden area, with additional small-scale production in the Hill Country and in the Austin and Dallas area," said Leskovar, an AgriLife Research vegetable physiologist and the Uvalde center's resident director. But the artichoke as a commercial crop is still a relative newcomer to Texas."

"From a production standpoint, artichokes are a reasonably low-maintenance crop," Ortiz said. "In general, they require about the same amount of effort as say cabbage or onions. Plus, they have a much better profit potential than most of the traditional crops produced in the Valley."

Murray, who also is president of the Texas Vegetable Association headquartered in nearby Mission, said they frequently receive compliments and expressions of gratitude from their customers.

"Our customers tell us they like the freshness, the nutty flavor and the big heart of the artichokes we grow here," Murray said.

But it's not just Rio Grande Valley-area consumers who are delighted with their artichokes, he Murray said. MO Produce can now count Whole Foods, as well as another Texas-based supermarket chain, among its artichoke fan — and customer – base.

In addition, celebrity chef Jesse Griffiths, owner of Dai Due Butcher Shop and Supper Club in Austin, is another fan of their artichokes.

"I've been buying artichokes from Mike and Jed for three or four years now and they have always been very high quality," Griffiths said. "I would describe them as sweet with a nut-like or slightly 'woody' taste and excellent texture. I enjoy using them in my dishes and look forward to the times when they're available to me."

Another positive aspect of artichokes their role as a staple of the Mediterranean diet, which has been scientifically proven to have exceptional health benefits.
"Artichokes are high in dietary fiber and low in calories, plus they're rich in antioxidants and potassium," said Dr. Sharon Robinson, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service nutrition specialist in College Station.

She noted that a recently completed 5-year study in Spain showed participants with heart-risk health issues following a Mediterranean-type diet had a 30 percent lower combined rate of heart attack, stroke and death from related causes than those following a typical low-fat diet.

"Our research on artichoke production, which began in 2005 at the Uvalde center and in conjunction with the Food for Health Program, has shown the artichoke to be a viable alternative crop for many areas of the state," Leskovar said. "We have studied crop yield, quality and nutritional aspects of several different varieties of artichoke in relation to different irrigation regimes and nitrogen fertilization rates. We also focused on water-use rates as this region is water-limited and prone to drought, as well as on the heat tolerance of artichoke varieties."

Leskovar said center research is also investigating how to extend the spring growing season so operations can take advantage of the higher off-season prices.

"Development of year-round management strategies focused on producing artichoke heads in the spring and fall in areas of the state will give producers with a positive market opportunity to
sell their product at the best possible price," he said.

Leskovar said the nutritional value to the consumer and profit potential to the producer make the artichoke a stand-out alternative crop for many parts of the state.

"Early indications of new field variety trials are showing  good commercial potential for early and late variety selections with  traditional green heads and also red to maroon color heads," he said. "These too may provide some more interesting opportunities for Texas producers."

Zurvita Challenge for Life

Directions for cooking an artichoke

Fill the pan with just enough water to cover bottom. Bring to a full boil over high heat. While water is heating, trim and discard the stems and tough outer leaves of artichokes. As an option, tuck slivers of butter and slices of garlic into artichoke leaves.

When water is boiling, place steamer insert in pot and set artichokes in steamer, stem-side down. Cover pot with lid and allow artichokes to steam for approximately 20 minutes, until tender.  Add salt to taste.

Directions for eating an artichoke

Begin with the outer leaves of the artichoke and eat by dipping the soft tender inside end in mayonnaise.  Eat each leave the same way until you get to the heart, where you remove and discard  the inedible fuzzy part (called the "choke") covering the artichoke heart. Eat the heart adding mayonnaise to taste.

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