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Taking the Mystery out of the Artichoke

There are some people who don't know how to eat artichokes. This has only recently come to my attention. Having grown up in an Italian-American family, I assumed everyone ate artichokes.

When I was about 6, my mom sat me down at the kitchen table, placed a large stuffed artichoke, several napkins and an empty bowl in front of me and said, "It's time to learn how to eat an artichoke."

I remember thinking, "How the heck am I supposed to eat that?" It looked like a scary stuffed cactus. However, once I tasted the soft, buttery artichoke flesh and moist, chewy bread filling, I was smitten. Stuffed artichokes are still among my favorite foods.

Eating an artichoke is actually easier than it looks. Start by plucking a leaf from the outer part of the artichoke. Grasp the leaf with two hands, and place it flesh side down against your bottom teeth. Biting down with your upper teeth, gently pull the leaf away from your mouth, scraping off the creamy artichoke flesh at the bottom of the leaf. Finally, discard what remains of the leaf. If the flesh doesn't scrape off easily, then it probably isn't cooked enough. (Trust me, no amount of chewing will help.)

Continue plucking leaves, working your way to the tender center. Just before reaching the delectable heart, you may encounter some thin, purple-tipped, prickly leaves (though if properly prepared, they should already have been removed). Pluck and discard them, as they are not edible.

Then get ready for the most glorious part of the artichoke — the heart, the caviar of vegetables. Located at the bottom of the artichoke, the heart has a nutty, earthy flavor and thick, custard-like consistency. It needs no stuffing, no dips. Using a fork and knife, simply slice the heart thinly and savor every mouthful. My grandmother warned us never to trust anybody who throws away the heart.

Native to the Mediterranean, the artichoke is actually the edible flower bud of a thistle plant in the sunflower family. In fact, if left to develop, the artichoke will blossom into an extraordinary, spiky, brilliant purple flower.

Artichokes are one of the oldest know foods, dating to antiquity. According to legend, when Zeus spotted Cynara, a beautiful young mortal, he transformed her into a goddess. Homesick, Cynara sneaked back into the mortal world. When Zeus discovered her deception, he turned her into an artichoke. The artichoke's scientific name, Cynara scolymus, reflects this story.

Historians believe that artichokes were cultivated by North African Moors beginning about 800 A.D., and that the Saracens, another Arab group, introduced artichokes to Italy. This may explain how the Arabic al-qarshuf — meaning "thistle" — became articiocco in Italian and eventually "artichoke" in English.

Artichokes are still grown primarily in the Mediterranean. California, with its Mediterranean-like climate, produces virtually 100 percent of the U.S. crop. Of that, more than 80 percent come from Castroville, the self-proclaimed "artichoke center of the world."

Though artichokes are available in supermarkets year round, they peak in the spring (March-May) and again to a lesser degree in the fall (October-November).

Most artichokes for sale in the U.S. are globe artichokes, a conical-shaped variety with pointy leaves generally weighing about a pound. A newer variety, big heart, is similar in taste to a globe, has rounded leaves and weighs closer to 2 pounds. Just remember that the larger the artichoke, the longer the cooking time.

Look for artichokes with dark green leaves that are tight like a fist. Check for freshness by placing the artichoke in your hand — it should feel heavy for its size and should squeak when squeezed. If it feels spongy, then it's old. Sometimes the leaves will be streaked brown or white from frostbite or windburn. Though unattractive, the taste is unaffected. If the leaves are splayed, dried or pitted, though, move on to another artichoke.

Like most seasonal foods, artichokes can be pricey, from $1.50 to $4 each. However, they are often on sale in the spring. They are best when eaten within a day or two of purchase, although they can last up to five days unwashed in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.

So the next time you're in the supermarket and you see someone staring blankly at a pile of fresh artichokes, walk over and say, "Do you know how to eat those? I do."

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Susan Russo