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Winter Is the Season for Peak Quality and Best Prices for Artichokes : Produce: The quality is excellent and prices for the exotic thistle are reasonable.

February 22, 1990|ROSE DOSTI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Recent heavy rainfalls in Northern California were just what the doctor ordered for production of artichokes and other important vegetables (such as broccoli and cauliflower). Quality is excellent and prices are reasonable.

Arabs discovered that certain thistle were good to eat and introduced the plant to other regions along the trade routes. By the 15th Century artichokes were being cultivated in Italy and gradually began to appear in other areas of Europe.

Spanish explorers and French settlers in Louisiana brought the thistle to America. Today the entire supply of artichokes comes from 10,000 acres of California's mid-coastal counties, with Castroville the artichoke capital of the world.

Nutritionally speaking, artichokes are low in calories, about 58 per large bud. They contribute to the RDAs in several vitamins and minerals, including potassium, vitamin A and B, iron and calcium.

Artichokes harvested in winter months may have bronze-tipped outer leaves caused by light frost. Winter artichokes mature slowly, thus enhancing the delicate flavor of the vegetable.

If cooking with artichokes is new for you, here are some tips from the Artichoke Advisory Board on handling this delicacy from the thistle family.

Choose artichokes with firm, solid heads and compact leaves. The size of the artichoke has nothing to do with age or quality. Any size may be boiled or steamed. The smaller artichokes are better for pickling, stews and casseroles. The medium size artichokes are ideal used in a salad. Save the largest one for stuffing as a main entree to a meal.

To prepare artichokes for cooking, first wash them. Then cut off the stems at the base and remove the small bottom leaves. You may want to trim the tips of the leaves to avoid prickles when handling.

Stand the artichokes upright in a deep saucepan large enough to hold them snugly. Most cooks add two- to three-inches of boiling water and a bit of salt to the pan. You can add about one tablespoon lemon juice to prevent darkening plus a few drops of oil to make the leaves glisten. Cover and simmer 30 to 45 minutes for large artichokes.

If the base can be easily pierced with a fork, they're done. Add more water if necessary to keep the pan filled part way. Turn the artichokes upside down when you drain them and gently spread the leaves to remove the choke (thistle portion) from the center of the artichoke with a metal spoon.

To prepare baby or small artichokes, snap off the outer petals near the base and cut off the artichoke about one-third from the top or just below the green tips of the petals. Trim green areas from the base and cut off the stem. Rub cut surfaces with a lemon half and let stand in water to cover plus add three tablespoons of lemon juice. Halve or quarter artichokes. If center petals are purple or pink, remove prickly tipped petals and fuzzy center.

To steam the artichokes, place upside down in a steamer and steam according to manufacturer's directions until tender, about 45 to 60 minutes. You won't have to drain them.

Artichokes can also be microwaved with excellent results. Just place four artichokes upside down in a glass casserole with one-half cup water, four lemon slices and one tablespoon of salad oil. Cook, covered on HIGH (100% power) 16 minutes, rotating twice while cooking. Remove, turn right side up in liquid, recover and let stand five minutes before using.

To cook baby artichokes, place them in salted boiling water with one or two tablespoons lemon juice, using a stainless steel or enameled saucepan to retard discoloration. Simmer 12 to 15 minutes or until tender. Cool under running water and drain thoroughly.

If you've never eaten an artichoke leaf by leaf, you've missed something. Simply pull off the outer leaves, one at a time, as you dip them in a sauce or dip. Draw the end through your front teeth, scraping off the edible part of each leaf. Discard the rest of the leaf. Then continue clipping and eating until you reach the purple tipped cone of the light-colored leaves. Once at the choke, remove it with a spoon, and ease out the artichoke heart. You can use a spoon or slice it on a plate to eat as is or add to a salad.

The stem also is edible if you peel away the course outer skin and trim to about an inch from the heart.

Artichokes have a surprising number of uses. Those who prize the taste and have cultivated a taste for them, look forward to the seasonal supplies for treats in soups, salads, stews, or just as is with dips and sauces.

Here are some ideas for using artichokes, suggested by the California Artichoke Advisory Board.

-- Cut a cooked artichoke in half and include it with other vegetables and a favorite vegetable dip.

-- When cooking a pork roast or roast of any kind, place small trimmed artichokes in the pan along with the potatoes.

-- Leftover artichoke hearts are great when chopped up and put in a salad

-- Cut cooked artichokes in half and remove the choke. Fill with salad or filling of your choice. It's great as a salad or main course.

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