The wonderful world of artichokes

If you ever want to pass some time on a long flight, just turn to a fellow passenger and announce "the correct way" to cook an artichoke. A disagreement will ensue because there are about as many ways to cook an artichoke as there are connecting flights through O'Hare.

Most newcomers to the world of artichoke cuisine can't believe we go to so much effort for such little payoff. After all, at least 85 percent of an artichoke is inedible — you're only after that tender morsel at the tip of each leaf, and oh yeah, that succulent heart.

How to Cook an Artichoke

1. Rinse it thoroughly, then trim the stem, leaving only about 1/2 inch (you can leave more: it's up to you, but in some pots it interferes with the lid).

2. Move to the other end where all the tips of the leaves converge into one big tip; cut away about 1/2 inch from this pointy end, creating a flat surface. Some people suggest cutting about 1/2 inch from the tip of each individual leaf, as well. For one thing, it looks pretty, and it's a dandy way to impress a date. Beyond aesthetics, this is a good idea if the particular variety of artichoke you're working with has razor-sharp spines protruding from the leaves.

3. Place the artichokes in a pot, stem-ends up, and add enough water to submerge the lower third of the vegetable. This is where the controversies heat up. Some folks believe artichokes should be placed in a steamer basket, stem-ends down, over very little water. Others believe they should be totally immersed. My reasoning behind stem-end up is that it's a compromise: The vegetable isn't totally immersed (which I think makes for a soggy heart) because it's only sitting in water up to its knees. At the same time, the steam is heading up through the leaves and penetrating into the meaty part of the artichoke. Thus, I believe it cooks faster and isn't soggy.

4. For additional flavor, consider adding about 1/2 teaspoon salt, a handful of fresh herbs (such as lemon thyme and oregano sprigs) and a squeeze of fresh lemon. When time and mood are aligned, I also throw in seven or eight garlic cloves, simply "crushed" with the flat side of a chef's knife so the flavor leaches out into the water (no need to peel and mince), and a few peppercorns, along with those fresh herbs, salt and lemon (I actually squeeze the juice from a section of lemon, then drop the entire piece into the pot).

5. At this point, you can simply crank up the heat, cover the pot and cook the artichoke until it's tender, which takes anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes, depending on the size of the veggie (check the water level during the last few minutes; it may be necessary to add more). To test for doneness, take a sharp, pointy object, such as the tines of a fork or a cake tester, and prod the stem end. If you can easily insert the fork, the artichoke is done. If you don't trust yourself with this method, grab a pair of tongs, retrieve an artichoke from the pot and try to pluck one of the leaves from the main body. If it comes out without a fight, and the meaty portion is nice and tender when you bite into it, then it's done.

That's it. You've cooked an artichoke, so be proud. Preferred sauces for dipping are mayonnaise, any number of simple vinaigrettes (bottled or otherwise) or even equal parts mayonnaise and wine vinegar. The latter actually is my favorite approach, both for flavor and the fact that I'm moderating my mayonnaise intake considerably.

Anyway, to eat an artichoke, my approach is simply to pull leaves off the main globe one at a time, beginning with the smallest ones around the stem, and work toward the center. When you pull off a leaf, you'll notice a plump, little portion of artichoke meat at its base.

If this is your genuine first artichoke, then I highly recommend tasting it au naturel: no mayonnaise, butter or other type of sauce; just you and a pure artichoke experience. To do this, scrape off that plump tip by gently biting down on the leaf slightly ahead of the edible portion and scraping it through your front teeth. The fibrous leaf comes out; the tender pulp stays behind.

For the remaining leaves, you certainly have the option of continuing to eat them in their unsauced state (why pick up any bad habits if you don't have to?). Or you can do what most artichoke lovers do, which is justify the consumption of vast amounts of mayonnaise and butter by dipping the pulpy tip of your artichoke leaves into one of those offerings before eating.

By the way, you'll want to experiment with the leaf orientation in your mouth. That is, try some leaves with the pulpy portion facing up, some with the pulpy portion facing down. One way will feel more enjoyable than the other, and that's how you'll inevitably continue to eat them for the rest of your life.

Once you reach the fuzzy center, you're ready to enjoy the ultimate reward: the heart. Scrape the "choke" from the meaty bottom by using a spoon or knife. The big, thick disc of artichoke you're left with is the heart. Using fingers or fork, dip portions of it into your sauce (unless you're being pure) and enjoy!

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit" and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.


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