This week's look at what's new, bountiful or mysterious in the produce aisles.
You can certainly buy frozen artichoke hearts, or those canned ones floating in salty water, or the jarred ones suspended in oil, but you would miss the great adventure of trimming this spring delight and then eating your way through the tender leaves to the delicious heart. The artichoke is actually a flower bud, so think of preparing it as a small-scale pruning project and it might make the task a little more enjoyable, sort of like cutting back the azaleas.
HOW TO SELECT: Look for artichokes that are bright green in color with tightly closed leaves. I've seen some huge ones lately, more rounded at the ends than pointed, but I still believe in the one-man, one-artichoke rule: How would you or could you share one? Avoid any that look withered or that have flopped open at the top, but don't worry if an artichoke's outer leaves are split: this is often a sign that they have matured slowly and developed flavor.
HOW TO STORE: Artichokes wrapped tightly in a paper towel, then in a plastic bag, will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator. Don't wash them until you're ready to eat.
HOW TO PREPARE: Start by washing the artichoke thoroughly. Then, using your hands, pull off the outer tough leaves at the stem of the artichoke. Now get your sharpest knife. Place the artichoke on its side, grasp it firmly with one hand to keep it steady and carefully cut straight across the top, taking off the uppermost quarter. This will remove the tops of some of the spiked, tough leaves, but others will remain. Using kitchen scissors, trim the spiked tops of the remaining leaves, leaving bluntly cut leaves all the way around. Trim the stem to about a half-inch in length, making sure the cut is even especially if you are going to steam the artichoke by standing it up in a pot of hot water. Artichokes turn brown easily though this does not affect their taste. But if you're interested in visuals, keep some lemons handy and as you prepare the artichoke for cooking, rub the cut surfaces with lemon. If you are going to stuff the artichoke, you will need to pull out the core before cooking it. Using a spoon with a serrated edge, pull open the leaves and remove the fuzzy center at the base. (You'll need some strength for this.)
HOW TO COOK: The hard part is preparing it; once the artichoke is ready you can steam it, boil it, microwave it or roast it. With any of these methods, you know the artichoke is done when an inner leaf pulls away easily.
To steam: Place the trimmed artichokes in a steaming rack over boiling water. Cover and cook until tender, about 35 to 40 minutes for a medium choke. If you don't have a steamer, place the artichokes in a pot with about an inch of boiling water and prop them against each other to keep them upright.
To microwave: In "Vegetables From Amaranth to Zucchini" (Morrow, 2001), Elizabeth Schneider offers this method, though warns that it is less successful than other cooking methods: Put artichokes in a microwave-safe dish, sprinkle them with a littler water, then cover the dish with plastic wrap. Cook until the stem is easily dented when you apply pressure with a finger. Remove from microwave and let stand for five minutes. Carefully remove the plastic to avoid the blast of steam and yank on a leaf near the center. If it pulls away easily, the artichoke is done.
To stuff and roast: Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Remove the fuzzy center as directed above. Fill the center of the choke with stuffing (bread crumbs and herbs, cheese or sausage are a few examples), tuck some between the leaves, put the artichoke in a pan upright with wine and water and roast for about 40 minutes.
HOW TO EAT: Make a lemon vinaigrette or melt some butter and add lemon; plain mayonnaise works fine for some, as does ranch dressing. Let the cooked artichoke cool somewhat (they can be eaten warm or at room temperature). Pull the leaves away from the core, dipping the tender base of each leaf in your sauce. Bite the leaf about one-third the way up from the base and pull forward through your teeth to scrape the soft meat from the base. Continue until all the leaves have been removed.
If you haven't done so already, scrape out the fuzzy thistle just above the heart and discard. Now you've reached your goal: nibble on the whole heart or cut it into pieces and continue dipping.
-- Jeanne McManus