Take heart: Artichoke worth effort it takes to prepare them

By Lisa Abraham

Published: Wednesday, May 23 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

When preparing artichokes cut off the top to get at the choke in the center of the artichoke. (Ed Suba Jr./Akron Beacon Journal/MCT)

Shutterstock, Mct, photos by Ed Suba Jr., Akron (ohio) Beacon Journal, Ed suba jr., Akron (ohio) Beacon Journal

You have to wonder about the man who ate the first artichoke.

Prickly and ugly with a giant fur ball inside, how could he have known what a treasure he had?

Luckily, we can all reap the rewards of his bravery, particularly now when artichokes are in season and easy to find in the grocery store produce section.

"I think it's an intimidating-looking vegetable," said New York-based cookbook author and Italian cooking expert Michele Scicolone.

While artichokes are abundant in Italian cuisine, many home cooks don't consider them beyond draining a can of artichoke hearts or thawing a frozen block for mixing into hot spinach dip.

Scicolone said fresh artichokes take time to clean and prepare, which she believes keeps many cooks from attempting them. "There's a lot of work in the preparation," she said, adding, "But when you learn to love the flavor of the artichoke, it really is worth the effort."

When cooking fresh, whole artichokes, the globes need to be trimmed of their thorns, have their tops trimmed off, stems cleaned, and the hairy choke inside removed.

When steaming artichokes whole, it's best to cut the stem off so the flat bottom stands up inside a steamer basket, but it's OK to leave the choke in place. Artichokes are done steaming when a leaf pulls out without any effort. Without a steamer basket, simply place artichokes inside a pot so they fit snugly and are standing up, add about an inch of water, cover and simmer until they are soft and a leaf pulls out easily.

For eating, leaves are pulled out one at a time, dipped in melted butter, hollandaise sauce or mayonnaise, and then scraped against the bottom teeth to remove the flesh from the leaves.

Once the outer leaves are eaten, use a spoon (or fingers) to remove the hairy choke, which will reveal the succulent heart that lies beneath — the prize at the end.

While steaming is the most basic preparation, Scicolone said Italian cuisine features numerous ways for preparing artichokes because they are grown in abundance in Italy. Smaller artichokes often are served battered and deep-fried, and hearts can be marinated or used in stews and braises, she noted. One of her favorite dishes is to slice them up and toss them with fettuccini.

Scicolone said one of the reasons artichokes remain such a culinary mystery to many is because they aren't widely grown so people just aren't familiar with them. "It's not like a tomato that anyone can grow in the back yard," she said.

That doesn't stop some folks from trying.

Artichokes are a perennial plant in the thistle family.

Scicolone said stuffing artichokes is the most classic Southern Italian preparation for the vegetable.

When stuffing artichokes, it's important to use good bread crumbs — preferably homemade, not the already seasoned variety from the grocery store — and a high quality cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano, which is sharper and saltier, Scicolone said.

"It's going to be as good as the ingredients you put into it," she said.

Stuffed artichokes can be cooked on the stove top or baked in the oven. One whole artichoke is the perfect single serving.

Nearly all U.S. artichokes are grown in California, and they are in season now.

STUFFED ARTICHOKES

Juice of 3 lemons

Zest of 1 lemon

6 large artichokes

11/2 cups fine dry bread crumbs

1/2 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano

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