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When I first saw an artichoke, a prickly flower bud with lots of thorns, I did not think it could be edible. When I first tasted an artichoke, it was surprisingly and indescribably delicious. Eating an artichoke is similar to eating Indian drumsticks in that you eat only a small portion, the heart and the insides of the tender leaves, and throw the rest away. Indeed, it must have taken our ancestors a great deal of culinary daring or the danger of starvation to figure out how to eat this armored vegetable.

Culinary historians tell us that the Romans discovered artichoke plants growing wild in North Africa and consumed only the ribs of the leaves. Later, artichokes were cultivated in Europe, where they developed large flower buds which have edible “hearts.” The much-improved modern “globe” variety has been developed for its large buds.

The artichoke is a thistle-like perennial plant that loves cool moist weather. They were introduced in America in 1800 and thrive on the foggy California coast where the town of Castroville claims to be the Artichoke Capital of the World. Italy, France and Spain are still larger producers of artichokes, but artichokes for the American market are grown almost exclusively in California. Although California artichokes can be harvested and are sold year round, the peak harvest season for large globe artichokes is March through May.

Artichokes are remarkably nutritious. A medium artichoke contains about 65 calories, but as the pleasure of consuming one can take up to twenty minutes, you may use more calories eating it than you gain! An average artichoke provides four grams of protein and contains no fat. Other health benefits from this unusual vegetable include 20% of the RDA of vitamin C and 24% of dietary fiber. Artichokes are high in potassium and magnesium, and many powerful antioxidants, and they promote liver and digestive health. It is well worth the effort to become acquainted with this oddly beautiful vegetable.

How to purchase artichokes: There are several different varieties of artichokes. Most common are large or medium-sized globe artichokes with green or purplish-green leaves, some with diameters as large as three to five inches. Small “baby” artichokes are sometime sold in the markets, but are mainly processed for their hearts, which are sold in cans or jars, plain or marinated. When selecting a fresh artichoke in the market, look for a large, firm, heavy globe with tight leaves. Avoid any with brown outer leaves or dry withered stems.

How to cook and serve: Fancy restaurants cook artichokes in a variety of ways, placing them on their menus as exotic, high-end appetizers such as deep fried leaves and hearts, grilled and stuffed hearts, or artichokes minced and fried with herbs. However, the most common method of cooking artichokes is the simplest: as described below, just boil or steam them, and serve with or without a dipping sauce. Prepare a dipping sauce following one of the recipe below, while the artichokes are cooking.

Artichokes are best served as an appetizer. While the rest of the dinner is cooking, diners can take their time enjoying them. Artichokes are a finger food; no utensils are necessary, but napkins will be welcome. Provide a separate plate to collect the numerous empty leaves and inedible portions that will accumulate while eating.

Shanta Nimbark Sacharoff, author of Flavors of India: Vegetarian Indian Cuisine, lives in San Francisco, where she is manager and co-owner of Other Avenues, a health-food store.

Preparing Artichokes

Before cooking: First, immerse the artichokes in a bowl of cool water for a few minutes to clean them. Remove them from the water and pull off a few of the toughest outer leaves.

With a pair of small sharp scissors snip off the spiny tips of the leaves and trim the stems with a sharp knife. Then sprinkle some freshly squeezed lemon juice over the surface. This prevents artichokes from discoloring while they are cooking and enhances their flavor.

To Boil: Artichokes can be either steamed or boiled. To boil them, arrange three to four artichokes in a large pot (that is not aluminum) side by side, stems down. Add enough water to cover the artichokes halfway. Add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice, lime juice or mild vinegar to the water. Cover and bring to a boil. Turn down and simmer for 30 to 40 minutes. Uncover and check if done by tugging at a few outer leaves. If they come off easily, the artichokes are done.

To Steam:. Pour three cups of water into the bottom of a saucepan that is not made out of aluminum. (Aluminum can discolor the artichokes and offset the flavor.) Add a few tablespoons of lemon or lime juice to the water.  Arrange three to four artichokes in a steamer basket and sprinkle freshly squeezed lemon juice all over their surface. Place the steamer in the pan and cover. Bring the water to a boil, turn down the heat, and steam for 20 minutes. Uncover and turn the artichokes so that they cook on all sides. Cover and steam for another 15 minutes. Uncover and check for doneness by tugging at a few outer leaves. When they come off easily, the artichokes are done.

Dipping Sauce: Artichokes are usually served hot with a dipping sauce. Below are several recipes for sauces that can be prepared ahead of time. Provide small individual bowls for each diner. You can also serve mayonnaise as a dipping sauce, or the artichokes can be eaten plain.

Lemon Butter Sauce: In a small saucepan, melt  ½ cup (one stick) of butter. Add 1 to 2 tablespoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice, and salt and pepper to taste. You can also add minced fresh herbs such as oregano or basil. Divide into four to six portions and serve in individual bowls.

Garlic Dipping Sauce: Mince 4-6 cloves of fresh garlic. In a small saucepan, heat ½ cup of olive oil. Add the minced garlic to the hot oil and cook for just a few minutes, until the garlic is fragrant and turns a golden color. Do not overcook. Add salt and/or pepper to taste. Divide into four  to six portions and serve in individual bowls.

 Tomato Dipping Sauce with shallot, garlic and cumin seeds: This is a low-fat dipping sauce with an Indian flair. In a small saucepan heat a tablespoon of olive oil. Add two small shallots minced, and a clove of garlic minced. Cook until fragrant. Add ½ teaspoon cumin seeds and cook these all together for another minute. Then add 1 cup of tomatoes finely chopped.(Heirloom tomatoes work best for this.) Stir the mixture while cooking over a medium heat until a smooth sauce forms. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste. Divide into four portions and serve in individual bowls.

How to Eat Artichokes: If your diners are not familiar with artichokes, you may want to show them how to eat one. Starting from the outside, pull off one leaf at a time and dip it into a sauce if desired. Place the inside of the leaf against your lower front teeth, bite down, and pull it away gently. The soft edible flesh will remain in your mouth while the tough outer surface comes free. Discard the empty leaf to the plate provided and repeat the process with another leaf. As you progress toward the center the leaves will be softer, and more and more of the leaf will be edible. When all of the leaves have been peeled away, you will reach the center which has two parts: the heart, and the “choke.” The heart is the best part, the most tender and flavorful part of the artichoke. With a teaspoon or a butter knife separate it from the fuzzy choke, discard the choke, and prepare to savor the heart. The heart is so yummy it needs no sauce, but whether to eat it with sauce or not is an individual pleasure.