This edible thistle dates back eons and was prized by ancient Romans as food of the nobility. The word "artichoke" is shared by three unrelated plants: the globe artichoke, sunchoke and chinese (or Japanese) artichoke. The globe artichoke (Cynara scolymus) is considered the true artichoke, and today, there are more than 50 varieties of it grown around the world. In the United States, almost the entire crop is cultivated in California's midcoastal region. Europe, France, Italy and Spain produce prodigious crops of this illustrious vegetable. The artichoke is actually the flower bud (its leaves tough and petal-shaped) of a large thistle-family plant. The buds grow on stalks, each of which has a primary bud at its tip and two or three smaller buds lower down. Below that are several very small buds, which are marketed as baby or cocktail artichokes, or sold for canning. Fresh globe artichokes are available year-round, with the peak season from March through May. They range in size from jumbo (great for stuffing) to baby (good whole for sautéing, frying, roasting or marinating to be used in salads). Purchase artichokes that have a tight leaf formation, a deep green color and that are heavy for their size. The leaves should squeak when pressed together. Avoid those that look dry or have split leaves or heavy browning. However, a slight discoloration on the leaf edges early in the season is generally frost damage (winter's kiss) and won't affect the vegetable's quality. In general, the smaller the artichoke the more tender it will be; the rounder it is, the larger its heart. Artichokes are best used the day of purchase but can be stored unwashed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator for up to four days; wash just before cooking. Processed artichoke hearts and bottoms are available canned (in brine or oil) as well as jars (in an oil marinade). Artichoke hearts are also available frozen. Labeling terms can be confusing — "artichoke crowns," for example, are actually artichoke bottoms, and the terms "hearts" and "bottoms"are sometimes used interchangeably. In actuality, the heart is a portion of the fleshy artichoke base including the attached tender pale leaves; the bottom is the entire base sans leaves. To prepare whole artichokes for cooking, slice off the stem to form a flat base. Snap off the tough outer leaves closest to the stem. Trim about ½ inch off the pointed top, then use scissors to snip off the prickly tips of the outer leaves. Rub all cut edges with lemon to prevent discoloration. It's easier to remove the fuzzy choke (use a teaspoon) after cooking, but it can also be done beforehand. Soaking artichokes in acidulated water for an hour before cooking will improve their color and tenderness. Cook artichokes in stainless steel, glass or enamelware only to prevent discoloration and off-flavors. Artichokes are done when the bottoms can be pierced with a knife tip. Cooked artichokes may be covered and refrigerated for up to three days. To eat a whole cooked artichoke, break off the leaves one by one and draw the base of the leaf through your teeth to remove the soft portion, discarding the remainder of the leaf. The individual leaves may be dipped into melted butter or some other sauce. After the leaves have been removed, the inedible prickly choke is cut or scraped away and discarded so the tender base is accessible. Artichokes contain small amounts of potassium and vitamin A and absolutely no fat. See also poivrade.

From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

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