The artichoke is a tall composite herb (Cynara scolymus), a relative of the thistle. The flower head, a fist-sized bulbous mass of coarse petals, is edible, and when properly prepared, can be quite delicious.
Where to Find Artichokes
If you're lucky enough to live near an agricultural region that produces artichokes, you will likely be able to find them fresh in the supermarket if they're in season. Fresh artichokes are generally available during the summer and early autumn. The rest of the year, and in parts of the world where fresh artichokes are not readily available, you can still find bottled or canned marinated artichoke hearts, which can be sautéed or used in salads, casseroles, and other dishes.
Notable among artichoke-producing regions is the microscopic rural town of Castroville, California, USA, the self-proclaimed Artichoke Capital of the World1. Located on the California coast about 100 miles south of San Francisco and surrounded by thousands of acres of artichoke fields, Castroville is home to little more than 'The Giant Artichoke', a restaurant housed in a giant artichoke-shaped building, that will serve artichokes steamed, sautéed, french-fried, pickled, poached, and otherwise prepared in any form imaginable. Castroville is also home to an annual artichoke festival, during which the population of the town swells ten-fold (which still isn't very many people).
How to Select a Fresh Artichoke
The youngest artichokes tend to be the most tender and tasty. It is easy to select a young artichoke in the supermarket if you keep in mind that it is simply an overgrown flower. A flower begins as a bud and as it matures, spreads its petals into the familiar splayed flower shape. An artichoke follows the same growth cycle, so the best artichokes are the more tightly closed, bud-shaped ones. Artichokes whose petals have begun to open are older, and tend to be tougher and less flavourful.
How to Prepare an Artichoke
The simplest way to prepare an artichoke is to steam it. Here's a simple recipe.
Using a large, sharp knife, cut the artichoke perpendicular to the stem removing the top third or so of the length of the petals. This leaves a flat surface on which the artichoke can sit (upside down) while steaming and allows the steam to more easily penetrate and cook the delicious artichoke heart.
Remove about a third of the stem. This portion of the flower is often dried out and inedible. Furthermore, removing it makes it easier to fit the artichoke into a pot.
Clean the artichoke. Fill a large bowl or basin with water and, holding the artichoke upside down by the stem, dunk it in the water repeatedly 15 - 20 times. This dislodges the dirt and grit that gets trapped between the petals as the plant grows.
Put about half an inch (just over a centimetre) of water in the bottom of a pot with a tight-fitting lid, and bring it to a boil.
Place the artichoke in the pot, petals down, and reduce the heat to a simmer.
If you like, you may put various things into the boiling water to flavour the artichoke. One or two crushed garlic cloves are practically compulsory. A splash of white wine or cooking sake (Japanese rice wine) contributes a subtle, but very nice flavour.
Let the artichoke steam for about 45 minutes in the simmering water, checking periodically to make sure the water hasn't boiled away. The timing is a little tricky and takes some practice. An undercooked artichoke is tough and bitter; an overcooked artichoke is mushy and textureless. Larger artichokes will require longer cooking times. An artichoke is done when its heart (the area where the stem meets the petals) can be penetrated with a toothpick or fork with a small amount of resistance.
How to Eat an Artichoke
Artichokes are much like lobsters in that most of their mass is inedible, and it requires a ridiculous amount of effort to extract what amounts to a very small amount of food2.
The edible parts of an artichoke are the heart, the inside lining of the petals, and the inside of the stem. The petals of a steamed artichoke should yield to a gentle tug and detach from the heart, bringing a small amount of edible heart material with them. Holding the part of the petal farthest from the heart between the thumb and forefinger, the edible material can be scraped from the inside of the leaf with the teeth. The remainder of the petal is tough and fibrous, and should be discarded.
There is some debate over whether the upper teeth or lower teeth should do the scraping when eating an artichoke. This debate is reminiscent of the big-endian/little-endian debate of the Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels in that it is utterly pointless and distracts us from the actual enjoyment of the cuisine.
Many people dip artichoke petals in melted butter, mayonnaise, or salad dressing before consuming them. Others prefer the natural flavour and texture of the artichoke, which is quite unique.
Once the petals are consumed, the stem, heart, and choke will remain. The choke is the spiky, fibrous part that sits just above the heart. If the artichoke is left to bloom instead of being harvested, the dark green petals open to reveal the bright purple choke, an awe-inspiring and almost alien sight. The choke should be scooped out with a spoon and discarded. The remainder of the artichoke (with the possible exception of the outermost layers of the stem) is edible, and quite tasty with a little salt and pepper.