Artichokes (Cynara Cardunculus var. scolymus) is a member of the thistle family that is actively cultivated as food. Only the flower buds of the plant are edible if harvested before they bloom. The artichoke plant is mostly grown in Italy, Spain, France, Peru, Argentina, and the United States. Reaching heights between 4 and 6 feet tall, the artichoke plant produces a singular, large bud about 3-6 inches in diameter.
The bud is covered in triangular scales and if allowed to bloom the florets are a pleasing soft purple color. The flowers in the middle of an artichoke are known as the ‘choke’ or the ‘beard’ and are inedible.
We’ve figured out how to eat the bud in a variety of fun ways, making sure to utilize the tender center of the plant similar to how we’d use the heart of the palm. Being a rich source of folate and vitamin K, artichoke is mostly water and offers little in the way of calories. To cook an artichoke the thorns and about half of each scale are cut off before steaming, simmering, or boiling the bud for roughly half an hour.
The scales can be eaten after cooking and are often served with hollandaise, butter, aioli, or other sauces. Artichoke is used in everything from pasta to pizza, deep-fried whole, stuffed, or eaten raw. In Vietnam, artichoke is even used in specialty tea.
Cardoon, also known as the artichoke thistle is also a member of Cynara cardunculus. It is naturally occurring but has been cultivated in different forms and can still be found in the wild. The plant itself is unforgiving with hundreds of yellow spines and hairy green leaves.
Like the artichoke, cardoon produces a very large flower bud and vibrant purple flowers. Several cultivars have been modified to avoid the spines because of the irritation they cause when lodged in the skin. This plant requires a long, cool growing season and is not frost-sensitive.
It is not particularly great as a food source, offering little in the way of calories but providing a small chunk of folate, magnesium, and sodium to make up for it. They must be cooked before eating, especially if they’re of the wild variety, in order to avoid the spines and soften them up. They can be braised, steamed, or boiled and are very similar in taste to artichoke but with a bit more bitterness.
Helianthus tuberosus is a tuber known by many names. Sunroot, sunchoke, earth apple, wild sunflower, the Jerusalem artichoke is not from Jerusalem or an artichoke. This plant is actually a type of sunflower, although it’s primarily the roots that are eaten. The plant is recognized by its classic sunflower style, often growing 9 feet tall with large leaves and a rough, hairy texture along the stalk.
The flowers are a classic yellow and their tubers are long and uneven the color of a potato but the shape of a carrot. Native Americans cultivated them as a food source because their tubers continue to spread year after year even with some being harvested for food.
Jerusalem Artichoke contains little starch but is rich in carbohydrates. High in iron and fiber, sunchoke has roughly 650mg of potassium per cup. They offer a subtly sweet flavor because of the fructose that is produced whenever they’re stored.
They are used in cooking and baking in the same ways you’d use a potato, but they can also be eaten raw. When raw they have the same firmness as a potato but offer a nutty flavor.
Brassica oleracea is grown specifically for its edible buds that look like tiny heads of cabbage. They’re named because of their popularity in Brussels, Belgium where they’ve been popular for a very long time. The plant grows a very long stalk upon which the spherical heads begin growing like tiny flower buds all the way around.
Each stalk produces about 2 pounds of sprouts per harvest. These tiny vegetables pack a punch of nutrition, offering high levels of vitamin C, K, and B as well as essential minerals and fiber. It can be eaten raw, steamed, boiled, sauteed, or even fried.
Brussels sprouts are flavorful on their own but lend well to other dishes without overpowering other flavors. Like the artichoke, they have been found to be delicious on pizza, in pasta dishes, or in salads. They can be used as hearty chip substitutes for dips full of cheese or topped with balsamic vinegar and roasted nuts for a savory, mouthwatering side dish.
Heart of Palm
The Heart of Palm is literally the core of certain palm trees. Coconut, Acai palm, and peach palm are the main trees harvested for this delicacy. There is a method to harvesting that must be followed otherwise the entire tree dies, making the heart of palm a vegetable that has to be cultivated by skilled farmers in order to flourish.
Heart of palm can be harvested from many palm species all over the world, including palmetto bushes in Florida and Trinidad. Rich in fiber, iron, copper, vitamins B2 and B6, the heart of palm is chock full of other essential nutrients.
Heart of palm may be eaten raw by itself and is readily used in salads. It offers a similar taste to artichoke and water chestnut. It can be pureed and added to dips, used in stir-fries, grilled or diced up, and made into a cake similar to a crab cake. It is a very versatile vegetable, though it can get pricey because of the amount of effort needed to collect it.
Asparagus is a very different vegetable than artichoke, but when fried the flavor can be similar. Asparagus Officinalis is a perennial plant, but only the shoots are used as a vegetable. Asparagus is very easy to identify.
Each shoot looks like a tiny bamboo shoot with a bunched-together top that resembles a closed rose with a slight purple hue. They are cultivated via the roots, which is what is often sold in stores and it can take several years for the root system to push up shoots that are large enough for human consumption. The shoots are harvested young because once the buds begin to open the entire thing gets tough and woody.
A great source of vitamin B6, calcium, zinc, and dietary fiber, asparagus is most often cooked whole in oil or butter with herbs and lemon juice. It can be pureed and added to soups to add a flavor that tantalizes the tastebuds. Shoots can be chopped up and added to stir-fries, used as a steamed or braised side dish, pickled, or even eaten raw in salads or by itself.
Brassica oleracea is a strange-looking little vegetable. Its name means cabbage turnip in german, although it isn’t a turnip at all. Kohlrabi has been cultivated by carefully selecting plants that produced a rounder shape like a cabbage without leaves wrapping around.
The flavor of the vegetable can only be described as similar to broccoli but sweeter and peppery. There are several different varieties available including Gigante, White or Purple Danube, and Grand Duke. Kohlrabi is typically substituted for collard greens or kale, but it can be used in some dishes in place of artichoke, namely in salads, stir fry, or pasta.
Sechium edule is part of the gourd family and looks like a giant pickle. Like most members of the squash family, the Chayote grows on a vine in warmer climates all over the world. It can be somewhat harder to find in larger grocery stores but is becoming more popular and therefore easier to find.
It is almost always cooked and can be prepared like any summer squash. A great source of vitamin C, this squash can be used as a puree, added to salsa, or used in any dish an artichoke is called for although the flavor most likely will be very different. It is recommended to keep the skin on when cooking because most of the nutrients are found in the peel, like with most vegetables.
Most people are familiar with the fruit but the entire plant is edible. The tubers can be cooked like any other root vegetable and the stems, seeds and leaves can be used in various ways to add something different to any meal.
Pachyrhizus erosus, or Jicama, is a native Mexican vine but you won’t find the vine in stores. The part that is harvested and eaten is the root because the rest of the plant is pretty toxic. Often referred to as the Mexican potato or sweet turnip, Jicama is an extremely versatile vegetable.
The flesh of the tuber is a clean, crisp white. Jicama is typically eaten raw, flavored with lemon, lime, or chili powder so you know it can handle strong flavors. If you’re looking to use Jicama to replace artichoke think raw. Slice it into wedges and use it to scoop salsa or dips. Add cooked Jicama to soups or stir-fried dishes with anything from beef to fish.
Another member of the cabbage family, Brassica Rapa pekinensis hails from Bejing and is typically found in East Asian dishes. This head of cabbage is more of an oval shape like the head of Romaine lettuce with lime-green leaves and bright white veins. It grows in medium to heavy soil and requires a high organic matter content in order to thrive.
The plant needs a lot of water all throughout the growth period and can easily fall victim to various fungal diseases so the farmers have to be on top of everything because their entire crop is at risk if even a few plants become infected.
Napa cabbage can be eaten raw or cooked. It is high in vitamin C and K and a great source of folic acid and vitamin B. The head can be chopped or shredded for use in a slaw, stir fry, or salad, but holds up well to cooking. The flavor of Napa cabbage is much milder than that of other cabbages, with a mild but slightly sweet taste that works well in a variety of dishes.
The term ‘bamboo shoot’ refers to the baby bamboo culms that push up out of the ground. Both Bambusa vulgaris and Phyllostachys edulis are used in cuisine and are suitable for substitution in place of artichokes. Most bamboo is sold canned or already pre-boiled to remove toxins.
They retain their crunch even after being boiled and impart a nutty flavor to dishes. Bamboo shoots are rich in potassium and vitamins C and B6. They can be pureed or chopped and added to dips, served raw or sauteed, and added to pasta just like artichokes can.
The easiest to find a substitute for artichoke is probably broccoli stems. This is the stem part of the broccoli head, often tossed out after the florets are cut off for use. They are a bit milder than artichokes but they’ll do in a pinch. Just like their florets, the stems are high in vitamin C and iron.
Broccoli stems have become quite common as an ingredient in many crunch salads and are just as versatile as artichokes in that they can be chopped and sliced in different ways to blend in or stand out in any dish.
Celeriac is a member of the celery family that is known for having a large, bulbous root the size of a grapefruit. The flavor is reminiscent of celery but much lighter with just a tinge of sweetness. The bulb has to be peeled before being chopped up, but once you’ve revealed the soft white inside of the bulb you can use celeriac in any way you want.
Cube it up and roast it, boil it and mash it or grate it into a slaw like the broccoli stems.
If you’re having a hard time finding artichoke for a specific dish, odds are you’ll have just as hard of a time sourcing lotus root. Just like several other options on this list, the lotus root is the stem of the lotus plant that is anchored to the bottom of a pond or river. It can grow about four feet long to allow its flowers to sit atop the water and attract pollinators.
When looking for a lotus root to prepare try to find one that is heavier than it looks and firm to the touch. Sometimes pre-cut packages can be found already sitting in a salty solution to preserve the freshness. Just like most Asian vegetables, lotus root lends itself well to stir fry dishes and can handle a variety of spices. It also holds up well in soups and stews.
Zucchini can be used if all else fails. This summer squash is often used in place of pasta noodles and can be prepared in any way you want. It doesn’t really compare to artichoke though, so I’d only use zucchini if you don’t like the taste of artichoke and still want to make the dish.