Living so close to prime artichoke-growing country, we tend to take these edible thistles for granted.
About 75 percent of the artichokes eaten in the United States are grown in Monterey County. For those of us in Northern California, they are available most of the year. For the rest of the country, artichokes are more of a seasonal treat from mid-February through March.
Look for artichokes that are firmly closed at the tip. Petals or leaves, sometimes called bracts, should be firm and springy. Artichokes should be bright green. You might find some with spots that look scorched or burned. These blemished chokes are what growers call "kissed" by frost. Some believe these kissed vegetables have a sweeter or more buttery flavor because the frost causes them to develop more sugar.
Artichokes can be cooked whole, or you can remove the thorns and choke before cooking, which will make them easier to eat and will help them cook faster.
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To prepare, take a sharp knife and trim the stem down to an inch or less. The stem has good flavor, so don't trim away all of it -- just remove the dry end where it was cut for harvesting. If the peel of the stem seems woody, use a vegetable peeler to remove it.
With a sharp paring knife, snap off the dry, woody leaves at the base of the artichoke until you get to a layer that looks slightly pale green where they attach.
Use a sharp knife or kitchen shears to trim off the thorny tips of the remaining petals until you get to the top, where petals are too compact to separate. Cut off the top to remove the thorns that are too close together to remove with kitchen shears.
Slice the artichoke in half from tip to stem. At the top of the stem is the heart, the best part. Above the heart is a hairy-looking section called the choke. Use a paring knife to cut a slit horizontally between the choke and the heart, being careful not to cut all the way through to the petals. Use a spoon to lift and separate the choke from the heart.
Artichokes can be simmered in boiling water or steamed until fork tender. Depending on size, cooking time will be 15 to 20 minutes for artichoke halves or 45 minutes for whole ones. Adding a little lemon juice to the cooking water will help them retain their color.
To microwave, arrange in a microwaveable container with ¼ cup water and ½ teaspoon each lemon juice and olive oil per artichoke. Cover tightly with a lid or plastic wrap and cook on high six to seven minutes for one artichoke, 12 to 14 minutes for four artichokes.
They can also be grilled. Small ones can be placed directly on the grill. Larger ones should be steamed first for a few minutes before grilling. To test for doneness, pull a leaf from the base. If it comes off easily, the choke is done.