The artichoke is the only vegetable, if it is a vegetable, of which there is more after it has been eaten . . . In place of the tightly balled flower head is a large dish filled with bracts, each bearing teeth marks so plainly that a dentist could identify the eater .

From "Foodbook" by James Trager

Artichokes might enjoy wider popularity if eating them didn't seem so complicated, or if more people knew that they were thought to be an aphrodisiac.

That reputation has persisted from Catherine de Medici through Henry VIII to the 20th-century physician who wrote one of the first marriage manuals, "The Ideal Marriage."

Catherine got her first look at artichokes, which became an immediate passion, after the handsome thistles were brought from Naples to Florence in 1466. According to one chronicler, she stuffed herself so full of them on one occasion, "she nearly burst."

Artichokes became so popular in Italy that different regions vied with one another to provide the best variety. Artichokes were among Catherine's luggage when she moved to France to marry the future Henry II in 1533. From there it was but a short trip across the Channel to England, and by the end of the 16th century artichokes had become a distinguished European vegetable.

But artichokes in some form have been prized since ancient Rome where they enjoyed a mixed reputation. In the First Century A.D., artichokes brought so high a price on the city's vegetable market that the lower classes couldn't buy them. Pliny the Elder thought that ironic, since he couldn't stand them:

"We even turn the monstrosities of the earth to the purposes of gluttony," he wrote, and noted that "the very four footed beasts instinctively refused to touch them."

They probably refused them because they didn't like the pricky pointed leaves and the hairy choke inside. What the ancients were eating was a plant called a cardoon, which disappeared completely with the Roman Empire. It was not until the Renaissance that the modern version, the globe artichoke, was cultivated in Naples. The cardoon, not well known in America, is considered a cousin of the artichoke. Both are members of the thistle and sunflower family. If artichokes are not harvested, the part that is eaten - the bud - will turn into a gigantic cluster of purple flowers.

The vegetable originated in the Mediterranean. The word for artichoke in Arabic is al-khurshuf or kharchiof , which became alchchofa in Spanish, articiocco in Italian and artichaut in French.

In this country, artichokes come almost exclusively from mid-coastal California where the climate is mild and humid. The largest are the most sought-after. The small, very young ones, which are so tender they can be eaten whole, are impossible to find except in the areas where they are grown. More's the pity: The most famous Italian artichoke dish, "Artichokes Jewish-style" (from the Jewish quarter in Rome), calls for deep-frying small tender plants whole.

In addition to stripping the flesh off the leaves, the heart and the bottoms can be eaten. Some people go directly to those two inner parts, convinced that the leaves are there only to make the prized parts more difficult to get. Some people also use the words heart and bottom interchangeably. They are entirely different parts of the plant. The heart resides in the middle, immediately on top of the bottom which is saucer-like.

Simply not knowing how to tackle an artichoke may keep a lot of people away from them. Only recently have Americans - other than those of French, Italian or Spanish extraction - ventured to buy the plants. At 69 cents or more apiece, artichokes seem expensive. Last week, however, they were available for 49 and 59 cents each.

But compared to the eating time of a very popular and expensive vegetable such as asparagus, on a per-minute basis the artichoke is a good buy.

Because it takes so long to eat, it is usually served as a separate course, either as an appetizer or in place of a salad after the main course. Artichokes offer a small amount of many important vitamins, trace minerals and fiber. They are also an excellent diet food. Not only are they low in calories - a little over 3 ounces contains between 8 and 44 calories depending on how long it has been stored - but they offer the perfect lesson in the behavior-modification approach to dieting: They must be eaten slowly.

BUYING AND STORING ARTICHOKES

Solid heads with thick, fresh-looking, tightly compact leaves without blemish, but with good green color. "Winter kissed" artichokes are another matter. The leaves take on a bronze hue because of early frost, but the eating quality is not affected. Avoid soft heads with loose, spreading leaves. One green grocer suggests this test for freshness: Rub one artichoke against another.Fresh ones will squeak or sing.

Artichokes will keep for several days in a plastic bag or close container in the refrigerator. How long depends on how old they are when purchased.

TO PREPARE FOR COOKING

This is the simplest method. Slice off pointed top of Artichoke. Cut off the stem so it's even with the bottom of the artichoke. Then the artichoke will stand up about 4 or 5 inches in 2 or 3 inches of water.This is a combination of boiling and steaming. Lemon may be added to the artichokes until the stem end is tender, 20 to 40 minutes, depending on the size. Drain well by standing stem side up and use in any of the recipes given below. Some people like to remove the choke before cooking; others after. To remove the hairy center, spread the leaves apart carefully. Pull out the center cone of leaves in once piece.This exposes the choke. Scrape it out with a teaspoon.

Artichokes also may be steamed above water. Allow twice as much cooking time. They also may be stuffed and baked.

Contact with certain metals discolors artichokes. So work with stainless steel knives and cook them in stainless steel or enameled cookware.

TO EAT AN ARTICHOKE

If an artichoke is served with a sauce, simply pull off each leaf with your fingers, dip the bottom of the leaf in the sauce and scrape off the flesh with you front teeth. The heart and the bottom are eaten with a knife and fork. Cold artichokes are delicious with a homemade mayonnaise, mustard mayonnaise or sauce vinaigrette. Hot artichokes go well with melted butter or hollandaise. Allow one per person.

MUSHROOM STUFFED ARTICHOKES

(4 servings) 4 medium artichokes with stems 3 tablespoons butter 2 tablespoons onion, minced 1/4 cup diced prosciutto ham or Canadian bacon* 1 egg, lightly beaten 1 tablespoon tomato puree 2 tablespoons white bread crumbs 1 tablespoon lemon juice 1/2 cup dry white wine 1/2 pound mushrooms Salt and pepper Additional bread crumbs and wine

Cook artichokes for 15 to 20 minutes, until they are 3/4 done.

Drain on rack and cool. When artichokes are cool enough to handle, cut off stems, peel and set aside. Pull out the inside spiny leaves and chokes and use a teaspoon to scrape off the hairy growth at the bottom of each artichoke. Work carefully.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a skillet and add onion. Cook for 5 minutes over medium heat and add mushrooms.Cook 5 minutes more and add remaining ingredients, including finely chopped stems of artichokes. Blend mixture well and stuff the center of the artichokes with it. Tie each artichoke around the center with a piece of string.

Place stuffed artichokes in buttered casserole and sprinkle some additional bread crumbs on each. Dot with remaining butter and pour additional wine around them. Cover and bake at 375 degrees for 10 minutes. Baste with wine; cover and cook 10 minutes more. Place each artichoke on a plate; cut off string and serve.(FOOTNOTE)

* Nitrite-free bacon may be substituted. (END FOOT)

- Adapted from A Book of Vegetables by Marina Stern

ARTICHOKES IN EGG SAUCE

(4 to 6 servings) 4 large artichokes 2 tablespoons butter 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth 1 tablespoon bread crumbs 1 tablespoon parsley, minced 1 tablespoon fresh basil, minced 2 egg yolks Juice of 1/2 lemon Salt and pepper to taste

Clean and trim artichokes and cut each into 8 wedges. Remove tough outer leaves and chokes. Melt butter in a skillet and add artichokes. Stir them until they are coated with butter, add the broth, salt and pepper. Cover and simmer until they are tender. This will take from 20 to 40 minutes. If the artichokes start to dry out before they are tender, add more broth.

When artichokes are cooked, remove them and keep them warm. Add breadcrumbs, parsley and basil to pan juices in skillet. Beat yolks and lemon juice together and add. Heat the sauce while stirring, until thickened. Do not boil. Return artichokes to skillet and coat them with sauce.

- From A Book of Vegetbables.

ARTICHOKES BRAISED WITH PORK

(6 servings) 6 large artichokes 2 ounces minced pork 1 ounce minced bacon 1 small onion, chopped Olive oil 8 ounces chopped mushrooms Salt and pepper to taste 12 to 18 slices bacon* 1/2 cup white wine 1/2 cup vegetable or chicken stock

Trim off the stems and cut off half the tops of the artichokes. Simmer for 10 minutes, refresh in cold water and drain again. Remove the choke and fill with the following stuffing. Stew the pork, bacon and onion in a pan but do not let the meat brown. Add a tablespoon or so of oil mushrooms, salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Tie 2 or 3 slices of bacon around each artichoke with a string and place in oven proof dish with oil. Fry lightly. Add wine and stock. Cover and braise for about an hour at 350 degrees. Remove string and serve with juices.(FOOTNOTE)

* Nitrite-free bacon may be substituted.(END FOOT)

- From Leaves From Our Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross and Michael Waterfield

GALANO'S ITALIAN GRANDMOTHER ARTICHOKES

(5 servings) 5 fresh artichokes 2 to 3 cloves garlic (depending on size) 10 tablespoons parsley 9 tablespoons olive oil Salt to taste Pinch of basil and oregano Freshly ground pepper Bay leaf (optional)

Cut stems off bottom of artichokes, peel and save. Pound bottom of each artichoke on a table (not so hard that they squish) two or three times to open leaves. Cut off points of artichokes and snip side points with scissors. Cut garlic into a total of 20 pieces. Punch (with finger or end of wooden spoon) one piece down into center of each artichoke (you may have to separate the leaves a bit with your fingers) and 3 more pieces between outside leaves. Do the same with parsley.

Cut stems in two and stuff one down each center like garlic and parsley. If the stems are too long, cut off the grungy part. Place artichokes in a pot so they gently touch sides of pot and each other. Being careful not to pour water into artichokes, pour enough water into pot (down and side) to reach half way up the side of the artichokes. Add 3 ro 4 tablespoons olive oil, basil and oregano to water. Add an additional tablespoon of olive oil to the center of each artichoke. Salt and pepper to taste. Cover pot and cook under high heat until boiling, then reduce heat to simmering. Simmer 45 minutes to 1 hour (watch pot!) until a center leaf removes easily. Do not overcook. Drain and reserve liquid.

Serve at room temperature or chill overnight and bring to room temperature before serving. Reserved liquid can be stored in refrigerator for an excellent soup base or water for cooking rice or bulgur. CAPTION: Picture, no caption, By Don Carstens for The Washington Post