Earlier this year, parts of California experienced freezing conditions which had affected a number of fruit and vegetable varieties. One of these were artichokes, some of which received frost and a subsequently darkened exterior. Producers generally have a hard time selling aesthetically damaged produce, or sometimes are not even able to sell them at all.
Monterey Farms in California has taken advantage of this and created their own artichoke heart product. Named "ArtiHearts", the artichoke hearts are lightly cooked and vacuum sealed as they are, without oil and with minimal natural flavoring. It also helps that they are located right in the heart of the major artichoke producing region in the United States.
"I started Monterey Farms 18 years ago," said Jane Shaffer. "We are located on the Central Coast of California, which gives us access to this nation’s finest artichoke fields in Castroville. I noticed that a lot of the unsold artichokes were being sent to cattle feed and wanted to make a product that would be fresher and more natural than the typical artichoke heart products packed in oil."
Shaffer said she saw a need in the foodservice industry for a prepared artichoke heart product that retained its natural taste. "Being a chef, I saw the need for an easy to use, ready to eat artichoke that was not packed in excessive oils and brines but tasted fresh from the fields," she noted. "All of our artichokes are sourced exclusively from this nation's finest fields on the Central Coast of California and go from farm to finished product in 24 hours or less."
From local fields to vacuum pack
Because Monterey Farms is located right in the center of California's artichoke growing region, they have excellent access to the vegetable. Once the artichokes arrive in the facility, they are cleaned, hand-trimmed, lightly cooked and then vacuum sealed. The company aims for minimal processing and added flavors, and the end product is 95% artichokes.
"We trim all the artichokes by hand and then gently steam them until tender, while still maintaining the crunchy texture artichokes are known for," Shaffer explained. "Once the hearts are prepared, they are then lightly tossed with our simple and light flavorings before being vacuum sealed. The hearts have a refrigerated shelf life of up to 3 months."
"Our original product was a 2lb foodservice pouch inspired by my 25 years in the industry," Shaffer continued. "I wanted to provide a natural tasting artichoke heart product without the oil and brines typically found in jarred varieties. Some years later, we introduced a 6oz retail line with 4 flavors. Natural, which is very lightly seasoned with fresh garlic and lemon. Grilled, which is steamed then tossed with olive oil and grilled. We also offer a Herbal pack which includes sundried tomatoes and Italian seasoning. Then we have the Buffalo ArtiHearts, which are tossed in a buffalo style sauce for a rich and spicy flavor. They can be enjoyed as is, or added into recipes either heated or cold."
Shaffer also said that after the artichokes are processed, Monterey Farms give the trimming to a local rancher in order to feed their cows. By working with the local farmers, they have established a sustainable local community. "We give all of our artichoke trimmings to a local rancher for their cows," she said. "The real treat is when they, in turn, share their artichoke fed beef with us. It is a wonderful sustainable synergy!"
Artichokes hot off the grill
Traditionally, the artichoke season revolved around Spring and Fall. However, with new varieties available, this has broadened to practically all year. According to Shaffer, however, the perennial varieties contain more meat and have a superior texture and flavor.
"Artichokes are part of the sunflower family and were traditionally available in the Spring and Fall," she observed. "However, growers wanted to provide them year round and introduced an annual variety. As a producer though, we prefer to use the heirloom perennial, or Green Globe, variety. The leaves have abundant meat and have a sweetness to the taste. Recently, growers have been able to more closely mimic these attributes in the annual variety. One of the main benefits to the growers is that the annuals have a larger crop yield and are less costly to grow."
Distribution a challenge
For Shaffer, it has been the distribution side of the business that has presented the biggest challenge. She said it's very difficult for small businesses to get their product out as most major distributors - the ones that work with big retail stores - are more interested in large volumes. She said she was fortunate to be able to get the artichokes into many Wholefoods stores.
"About 10 years ago, someone in Austin was looking for ArtiHearts at their local Wholefoods store," she said. "So they asked the manager who then contacted me and organized acquiring the product. Since then, I send my products down to the Los Angeles area, where Wholefoods send it to their stores across the country. ArtiHearts are now found in 9 of the 11 Wholefoods national regions."
The ArtiHeart range (from left): Buffalo, Herbal, Grilled, Natural
"It's very difficult for smaller businesses," she continued. "Large distributors are only interested in moving volume. They would rather deal with 2 truckloads of lettuce, for example, than 2 pallets of artichoke hearts. Therefore, I prefer to work with smaller distributors who are willing to partner with us to get our products out."
Proud to offer a healthy, tasty and easy-to-use product
The trend of easy to prepare, healthy, and tasty food products continues its strong growth. Shaffer said she is proud to produce this range of artichoke hearts for both home cooks and foodservice customers alike. The main message is that these vacuum sealed artichoke hearts can gain popularity over the traditional jarred varieties in oil.
"We are always working to improve the process and make things more efficient, but never compromising our quality" Shaffer said. "Most people associate artichoke hearts with those in the jar and I believe we offer a truly unique alternative that preserves the natural health benefits of this amazing vegetable. Because they are not frozen and not immersed in oil, they retain their unique texture and flavor. It makes us very proud to take a vegetable that is tedious and time-consuming to prepare, and offer it in a value-added manner that is healthy and easy to use, as well as delicious."
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