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The Art of Artichokes

They're tasty as an appetizer - eaten leaf by leaf - and quite good when added to salads, soups, and appetizers

There is more to the artichoke than meets the eye. In fact, the best part is hidden deep beneath the prickly tipped leaves - it's the heart. It's easy for the uninitiated to feel intimidated by this leafy green globe, but there's no reason. Everyone has to begin with that first artichoke - and the art of working to the center, leaf by leaf.

First, let's purchase the perfect choke. They're not as cheap as the common potato due to the fact that they're handpicked. There are "spring and winter" varieties as opposed to "summer and fall" artichokes. Look for tightly compacted leaves with even green color and fresh-looking tips on the former. The latter types will be more cone-shaped with flared leaves. Those with bronzed leaf tips are thought by many to be the most tender with the best taste.

Once home, refrigerate in a plastic bag. They'll keep for up to a week. Once cooked, they can be frozen.

The heart of the choke is a group of tender, tightly wrapped leaves inside and near the base. It's surrounded by a fuzzy ring that must be removed. It can typically be scraped away with a spoon. The "bottom" is the base itself minus the fuzzy portion and all leaves.

When eating as an appetizer, the artichoke should be trimmed and steamed. Rinse well and shake upside down. Sometimes critters will cling stubbornly to the deepest part - so much that they're not found until the eating process has begun. Cut off the biggest portion of the stem so that the artichoke will remain upright on its own. Slice the top of the choke off. Then work backwards, trimming the spiky leaf tips. Place in a steamer pot for up to 45 minutes. Test for doneness by pulling a leaf away from the center near the top.

Heat butter and add garlic if desired. Now the fun begins. You'll remove each leaf, dip it in the butter, and slide the fatty base across your top teeth. The meat is very tasty. It's a drawn out experience, of course, as you remove each leaf working toward the heart. Once the outer leaves are picked and left to rest on a separate plate, you'll reach the fuzzy ring. Use a spoon to scrape around the delicious heart. Now you can use a fork to dig into the remaining portion.

That is the decadent way to enjoy an artichoke. They can also be stir-fried, sautéed, boiled, and microwaved. If a recipe calls for the heart or bottom, just remove the outer leaves and cook in the desired manner.

If you're unsure about cooking, purchase them frozen or canned. Drain and rinse if brined.

Artichokes, by the way, are actually thistle buds that have not bloomed. The "baby" chokes are fully mature, just smaller. They usually don't contain the fuzzy inner ring. They're sometimes referred to as French or Indian artichokes, but are not related to the Jerusalem artichoke.

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