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Awesome Blossoms: Cooking with Artichokes

Usher in Spring with this Unique and Versatile Veggie

If you've never tried an artichoke, now is your chance. Peak season for this Mediterranean relative of the thistle is from March to May. Farmers in Castroville, California, the self-proclaimed Artichoke Center of the World, are probably already harvesting this year's crop. This small Monterey county city, where 75% of the 3 million cartons of domestically-grown artichokes originate, has been celebrating the artichoke since 1959 with an annual mid-May festival. Next time you're at the grocery store, you can celebrate by adding a couple of artichokes to your cart. If you're like most people, after one bite of a steamed artichoke petal dipped in melted butter, you'll be hooked.

Artichokes: The Basics

While the Globe variety is probably the one that comes to mind when you picture an artichoke, there are actually many varieties of this plant, which can range in color from olive green to deep red. Although commonly known as a vegetable, the artichoke is actually a flower bud, which when allowed to blossom, is violet blue in color. Because each artichoke plant has many buds, artichokes come in a variety of sizes--the biggest are perfect for steaming or boiling, while baby artichokes (which are often much cheaper than their large siblings) are a delicious and tender addition to almost any recipe.

When buying artichokes, as with any produce, fresh is best. Choose artichokes that are tightly closed and seem heavy for their size with few discolored or shriveled leaves. Rub the leaves together; if they squeak you've got a really fresh specimen. Once you get your artichokes home, keep them in a sealed bag in the refrigerator to prevent discoloration.

Cook an Artichoke in 5 Easy Steps

Once you've taken the plunge and made your first artichoke purchase, preparation is a breeze. While cooking with artichokes can be as simple or as complex as you choose to make it, first-time chefs should start by trying the classic steamed or boiled approach.

  1. Wash the artichoke in cold water.
  2. Remove any discolored or shriveled lower petals.
  3. Using a stainless steel knife (to prevent discoloration) trim the stem close to the artichoke's base.
  4. Cut off the top quarter of petals if you prefer, although this is a purely aesthetic option since the spines are not very sharp once cooked.
  5. To preserve the vegetable's color, dip it in acidified water prior to cooking (one quart of water mixed with one tablespoon of lemon juice or vinegar). You can also add a touch of sugar and salt to the boiling water to obtain a better flavor.
  6. Steam (place on rack above an inch or two of boiling water) or boil (add to pot with enough boiling water to completely cover). Cook until you can pull off a petal near the center with ease--25 to 40 minutes depending on the size of the artichoke.

The Perfect Finger Food

The delectable flavor of freshly cooked artichokes needs nothing more than a simple dipping sauce to complement it. Chefs looking for an easy way to liven up a spring menu often rely on the artichoke as a fun way to start a special meal. This spiny vegetable can be an intimidating presence on the dinner table, however, if you've never before had the pleasure of eating one whole. Fortunately, a few tips can help even the novice artichoke eater enjoy the nutty flavor of this unique plant.

  • Pull off outer petals one by one, dip the thicker base into the sauce of your choice, and bite or scrape the succulent pulp off the inside of the petal with your teeth. Discard the rest of the petal.
  • When you get to the heart of the artichoke, spoon or cut away the fuzzy portion in the center, cut the remainder of the heart (including any portion of the attached stem) into bite-size portions, dip, and savor!

Get Cooking with Artichokes!

Once you've mastered the basic preparation (and eating) technique, it's time to get creative. Artichokes lend themselves to a wide variety of preparations, and are sure to add a special touch to any menu they grace. Artichokes can be marinated and grilled, stuffed with breadcrumbs and fried, saut�ed with meat and vegetables as a topping for pasta, roasted, braised, added to salads, or creamed in soups. If you prefer to keep things simple, try varying your dipping sauces for steamed artichokes. For a change of pace from butter, homemade mayonnaise-based sauces (mixed with fresh herbs or curry spices or garlic and lemon) are a nice complement.

As with any ingredient, getting hands-on experience with the artichoke is the best way to master the art of incorporating it into your menus. Take advantage of this year's season to become an artichoke aficionado!

Sources:

California Artichoke Advisory Board
Castroville, Artichoke Festival
How to Pick a Peach

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