CENTURIES AGO in North Africa, a very hungry and adventurous Arab discovered that certain thistles were good to eat.It may be, perhaps, that in the desert any grren thing is fair game. Still, one can imagine him carefully working around the prickly spines to find a tiny morsel of meat, and then going back to the thistle patch for more. By the time the Arabs invaded Spain and Italy in the 15th century they were cultivating this favorite food. And by the time the Arabs left Italy, southern Europeans had been converted to thistle eaters.

Cultivation has enlarged the thistle and also changed its name. Today most of us know and love artichokes, never considering that the purple weeds along the roadside are part of the family.

Spanish explorers brought artichokes with them to California, where the plant was allowed to go wild. At the turn of this century many considered the artichoke just another week to be rooted out, but Italian and Spanish settlers knew how valuable it was, and today over 10,000 acres are planted with artichokes. Castroville, just south of San Francisco, is known as the Artichoke Capital of the World.

We are just coming into the prime season for artichokes, April and May, when the supply is at its peak and the quality is high. But don't think of them as spring vegetables; artichokes are available year-round. In the winter you will see a bronze color on the tips of the leaves that the growers call "winter kissed."

When you buy artichokes, look for a firm, tight head with very compact leaves. When the head is squeezed you should hear a squeaking sound. Size is no indication of quality; however, you should expect to pay more for the larger size. The size is also not an indication of age; an opening bud is mature, no matter what size. If allowed to continue opening, the artichoke will blossom, like its cousin the thistle, with a fuzzy purple flower.

California residents have the opportunity to buy the very small artichokes that are culled from the lower branches of the plant. The culls are so small and tender that they have no choke or spines and may be eaten whole. The price of these is often as low as 40 for a dollar, but you must live near the artichoke fields to find them. These are used to make what the canners call artichoke hearts, not hearts at all but quartered small artichokes.

Best of all, artichokes are as versatile a vegetable as you will find. They may be steamed, boiled, baked or fried. They are eaten for breakfast when filled with ham and a poached egg, served as lunch or an appetizer when stuffed with crab, mixed with greens for a salad, passed as finger food at cocktail parties and even served as dessert when baked in an artichoke bread. The ladies of Castroville marinate them and pickle them when the price drops in the spring. But for East Coast residents the price is never low enough. BOILED ARTICHOKES 6 artichokes Boiling water 2 tablespoons oil 1 tablespoon salt 1 teaspoon rosemary Juice of 1 lemon

Wash the artichokes. Cut off the stem to make a flat surface. Remove the small bottom leaves. Use scissors to trim off the top 1/2-inch of each leaf. Cut off the top inch of the artichoke. Stand the artichokes upright in a pan small enough to hold all of them snugly. Pour in 3 inches of boiling water, oil, salt, rosemary and lemon juice. Cover tightly and boil gently for 35 to 45 minutes of until the bottom can be easily pierced. If necessary, add more boiling water to keep the level up. Drain. Gently spread the top leaves apart and remove the center. Reach inside the artichoke with a spoon and scrape out the choke. STEAMED ARTICHOKES 6 artichokes Water Juice of 1 lemon 1 teaspoon rosemary Olive oil

Wash the artichokes. Cut off the stem to make a flat surface.Remove the small bottom leaves. Use scissors to trim off the top 1/2-inch of each leaf. Cut off the top inch of each artichoke. Place the artichokes upside down in your steamer basket. In the bottom of the steamer place the water, lemon juice and rosemary. Drizzle olive oil over the artichokes or brush with oil. Place a snug cover on the steamer and steam for 45 to 60 minutes, depending on the size of the artichokes. WELL-TRIMMED ARTICHOKES

This method of trimming the artichokes before cooking leaves a totally edible artichoke which may be fried, stuffed or chopped for a salad. Begin snapping off the petals of the artichoke while you hold the forefinger of your left hand across the base of the leaf. If done properly, you will strip away the tough outer skin of the leaf and leave the meaty part attached to the bottom. If you bend the leaf over your finger and first snap, then strip off the skin, you should be left with a skinless part of the leaf that is about 3/4-inch high. Begin at the bottom and work your way around the artichoke until you reach the softer yellow center leaves. Use a knife and cut them off halfway up. Your artichoke will be about 2 1/2 or 3 inches high. Use a sharp-edged kitchen spoon to scoop out the choke and purple leaves. Scrape away all of the fuzz. Drop into water acidulated with several tablespoons of vinegar. Do this for all of the artichokes in the following recipes. THE GIANT ARTICHOKES FRIED 'CHOKES (Makes 32 appetizers or 8 servings as a vegetable) 4 "Well-Trimmed" medium artichokes (see above) 1 egg 1/2 cup milk 1 clove garlic, crushed 1 small onion, grated 1 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley 3/4 cup flour 2 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon salt Oil for deep frying Salt to taste Good quality mayonnaise, for garnish

Steam or boil artichokes. Cool. Beat the egg and milk together. Add the garlic, onion and parsley to the egg and milk. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Stir the milk mixture into the dry ingredients to form a lumpy batter. When the artichokes are cool, dry them and cut in half. Cut each artichoke half into quarters, lengthwise. Each piece will have a section of bottom and leaves. You should have eight pieces per artichoke. Dip each piece in batter and then deep fry at 350 degrees. It will take 6 to 8 minutes to achieve a golden color and crisp texture. Do not fry too many at once. Sprinkle with salt and serve with a good quality mayonnaise. CRUSTY BAKED ARTICHOKE APPETIZERS (Makes about 50 appetizers) 3 "Well-Trimmed" medium artichokes (see above) 1 cup mayonnaise 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice Zest of 1 lemon 2 egg yolks 1/2 onion, grated 2 cups dry bread crumbs 2 sticks of butter melted (substitute olive oil. Do not use margarine because it burns.)

Cut each artichoke in half and then cut thin lengthwise up-and-down slices. Each 1/8-inch slice will look like a feather. Mix the mayonnaise with the lemon juice and zest, the egg yolks and grated onion. Dip each artichoke feather in this mixture and then in the dry bread crumbs. This will be messy but worth the effort. Place the artichoke feathers separately on a baking pan that has been oiled with 1/4 cup of melted butter. (The pan must have sides, or the butter will leak onto the bottom of the oven.) Drizzle more melted butter on each feather. Bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes or until browned and crisp. Reheat at serving time in a 425-degree oven for 5 minutes. ARTICHOKES STEINBECK

If your can't find California sources for all of the ingredients, don't despair; the artichokes are sure to be from Castro Valley. Other sources will do as well on everything else. And the truth is that without any effort on our part many of the ingredients will come from California anyway. John Steinbeck knew and wrote about all the ingredients and areas mentioned, so I've named this dish for him. 8"Well-Trimmed" large artichokes from Castro Valley (see above) 1 cup minced Salinas celery 1 large onion, minced 4 cloves San Juan Bautista garlic, crushed 1/2 cup good California olive oil 1 pound of picked Monterey Bay crab meat 1 teaspoon salt Pepper to taste 1 teaspoon basil Zest and juice of a California lemon 1 cup minced San Joaquin parsley 1 1/2 cups soft San Francisco sourdough bread crumbs

Steam or boil artichokes, boiling for just 25 minutes or steaming for 35 minutes. The artichoke bottoms should be slightly firm. Saute the celery, onion and garlic in the olive oil until soft but not browned. Mix with the remaining ingredients, adding the breadcrumbs last. (Sourdough bread will give a lighter, less soggy texture.) Stuff each cooked artichoke with the mixture, mounding it up on top. Place the artichokes in a baking pan with high sides. Pour in boiling water about 1/2-inch deep. This keeps the artichoke bottoms from burning or drying out and assists in the further cooking of the artichoke. Cover with aluminum foil or a tight lid and bake in a 375-degree oven for 30 minutes.

For lunch serve with a mixed green salad and tomato slices and a very dry white wine. (The artichoke will make the wine seem sweeter than it is.) This is no time for vintage French; try a California chenin blanc. If you serve this as a first course, look for smaller artichokes and fill them less full. You should be able to cut the filling recipe in half if the artichokes are small. ARTICHOKE PATE (Serves 8 as a vegetable or first course) Grape leaves in brine (from a Greek grocery) 2 large artichokes, boiled or steamed 1 cup minced leeks (or substitute onion) 4 tablespoons oil 1/2 cup minced parsley Zest of 1/2 lemon 4 large eggs 1 cup sour cream 1/2 cup grated parmesan Salt and pepper to taste (about 1 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper) 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg (freshly grated is best)

Rinse the grape leaves and use them to line a buttered 1 1/2-quart loaf pan.

Cook the artichokes, and when they are done pull off each leaf and use a table knife to scrape the meat off each leaf, throwing away the skin. Mince the artichoke bottom. Place the leek, artichoke, parsley and lemon zest in a bowl. In another bowl, beat the eggs with the sour cream, parmesan and seasonings. Combine the egg mixture with the artichoke mixture and pour into the loaf pan. Cover with more grape leaves. Cover the leaves with a piece of buttered parchment. Bake at 325 degrees for 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until an inserted knife comes out clear. Chill well before serving. EGGS MASSENA Bearnaise Sauce: 2 tablespoons minced shallot or onion 1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley 1 tablespoon minced tarragon (fresh or preserved in vinegar) 2 tablespoons minced fresh chives 1/2 teaspoon salt Freshly ground pepper 1/4 cup dry white wine 1/4 cup white wine vinegar (or tarragon vinegar) 4 egg yolks 1/4 cup water 2 tablespoons lemon juice 1/4 teaspoon hot pepper sauce 1 cup butter, room temperature Massena: 8 "Well-Trimmed" artichokes (see above) 1 onion, finely diced 2 cups diced boiled ham 4 tablespoons butter 2 teaspoons white cider vinegar 8 extra-large eggs 8 tomatoes, sliced 1/2 cup minced parsley

Make the bearnaise sauce by placing shallot, parsley, tarragon, chives, salt, pepper, wine and vinegar in a saucepan and simmer until about 2 tablespoons of liquid remain with the solids. Place the yolks, water, lemon juice, shallot mixture and hot pepper sauce in the top of a double boiler. Place the pan over hot but not boiling water and stir with a whisk. The mixture will thicken like a custard as it heats up. Begin adding the soft butter, 1 tablespoon at a time. As each tablespoon is whisked in, add another. When all the butter is added and the texture is a thick creamy sauce, remove from the heat and keep warm by covering with a lid and placing over the hot water, which has been cooled with 1 cup cold water. This should keep it warm for 30 minutes. If the sauce separates but is not curdled (this happens when the butter is added too quickly), add 2 teaspoons of hot water from the bottom of the double boiler and whisk well. This should repair the emulsion.

Boil or steam artichokes. Keep the artichokes warm while you saute the onion and ham in butter. Bring a large pan of water to a boil. Add white cider vinegar to the water. To poach the eggs, break each egg into a small bowl. Line the bowls up near the simmering water. Carefully slide the eggs into the water, making sure that they don't touch. Simmer for 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove from the water. Drain on a linen towel. Fill each artichoke with a spoonful of ham and onion. Place a poached egg on top, first trimming off any strings of egg white. Place four thick tomato slices on each plate, top with an artichoke and cover with bearnaise. Sprinkle on a little minced parsley. Serve at breakfast with toasted english muffins. Or serve at dinner as a first course with french bread. ARTICHOKE BREAD 1 1/4 cups salad oil 1 cup packed brown sugar 1 cup granulated sugar 4 large eggs 1 cup all-purpose flour 1 cup whole wheat flour 1 teaspoon salt 2 teaspoons baking soda 2 teaspoons baking powder 2 teaspoons cinnamon 1 teaspoon nutmeg 2 cups cooked, minced artichoke 1 cup walnuts, chopped 1 cup raisins

Place the oil, brown and white sugars and eggs in mixing bowl. Beat until well blended. Sift together the dry ingredients and spices. Add to the oil mixture in two batches, mixing only enough to blend. Fold in the artichokes, walnuts and raisins. Butter and flour a 12-cup tube pan. Bake in a 350-degree oven for 50 to 60 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the center.