(Feb. 10) Although they may not realize it, consumers are 10 to 15 minutes away from culinary bliss when it comes to cooking artichokes.

“Artichokes are perfect for the microwave,” said Pat Hopper, manager of the Castroville-based California Artichoke Advisory Board.

Per Hopper’s directions, the artichoke takes about five minutes to prepare and about seven more to cook. Restraining yourself while it cools, she said, is the hardest part of the recipe.

While artichokes are a staple item in European households, the American consumer has been harder to court. According to The Packer’s Fresh Trends 2006, 19% of consumers said they bought artichokes within the past 12 months.

Ocean Mist Farms, Castroville, which began as the California Artichoke and Vegetable Corp., has done much to help increase the domestic market base for the commodity. The firm has bought time on both radio and TV in the past and also has placed inserts in select magazines.

It also launched a Web site — www.oceanmist.com — that features availability charts, recipes and historical information.

The success of the commodity hinges upon the ability to provide retailers with a year-round supply of large artichokes, said Kori Tuggle, marketing manager.

“With our in-house plant breeding program, we have worked hard to strengthen our artichoke varieties, which allows us to supply our customers with large-sized artichokes year round,” she said. “It has taken years to develop our own proprietary artichoke varieties that fill our customer’s consistent requests for larger ones.”

With that in mind, more than 60% of the firm’s total annual volume is made up of large artichokes, said Dale Huss, vice president of artichoke production at Ocean Mist. About half of that volume comes from February through May.

Ocean Mist has seen continued success with its organic artichoke program, Tuggle said. The firm grows organic artichokes in Castroville and Coachella, Calif., and it plans to grow the program at an annual rate of 20%.

“Certain large retail chains have found the secret to a successful artichoke program is offering two different sizes of artichokes for their customers,” she said. “It gives the chain flexibility to have a consistent supply of artichokes throughout the year as the peak volume varies over the 12 months on certain sizes.”

Ocean Mist has made several improvements to its Castroville facility in anticipation of the spring artichoke season, Tuggle said, including a new roller rack system allowing efficient second-tier storage. With the system, pallets are brought from the back to the front automatically.

With an upgraded surveillance system, the firm is focusing on food safety and biosecurity. In fact, the facility, which is surrounded by 8-foot walls, is lined with security cameras, she said.

The company has also cushioned its docks, leaving no gaps between the loading door and the truck. The new docks help ensure the cold chain is not broken, Tuggle said.

Artichokes are a favorite among the health-conscious crowd, Tuggle said. Artichokes have been found to be high in antioxidants, potassium and vitamin C, and they have no fat or cholesterol.

Healthfulness, therefore, is another message that artichoke marketers can use to introduce consumers to the product, which is more popular along the coasts than in other regions.

Beyond region, the age demographic is a good indicator of a person’s buying habits, said Tracy Nelson, assistant produce manager at Cosentino’s Price Chopper in Kansas City, Mo.

“If you think about the younger clientele, many of them have never cooked an artichoke, and over half of them have probably never even eaten one,” Nelson said.

Par for the course, price also has a lot to do with the issue, he said.

“Right now, the market is extremely high on them because they had some frost damage,” Nelson said on Feb. 2. “They’re $3 a piece right now. When they’re two for three, that’s when you can really move some artichokes.”