Most fresh vegetables can be eaten raw or prepared with very little effort. Artichokes, of course, are an exception.
Preparing whole artichokes is fairly labor-intensive and can be daunting to first-timers. But don't let trepidation stop you from trying. It'll be well worth the effort.
Artichokes look like green flowers and, in fact, are the unopened flower buds of a thistle plant. They came to the United States by way of Europe; the French, Italians and Spanish are probably the leading growers and consumers of artichokes.
Artichokes not only taste great, but also are high in iron, vitamin C, folacin, magnesium and fiber. They range in size from huge main-course beauties (a pound or more) to tiny appetizers (about 2 ounces). The size depends on where the bud was positioned on the plant. The largest grow on the center stalk, while smaller ones are cut from the branches. The tiniest artichokes grow down at the base of the stalk.
Cooking and serving instructions depend on the size of the artichoke.
When shopping for artichokes, remember that each bud should be tightly closed and heavy for its size. If the leaves seem dry or are beginning to open, or if the bud has blackened, has wilted leaves or dark bruises, don't buy it.
If you're not sure how fresh the artichoke is, give it a little squeeze. If it squeaks, the leaves are nice and plump. If you can push your finger right through, it's probably too ripe.
Artichokes look rugged, but they're actually very delicate and perishable and should not be stored in the refrigerator for more than four or five days.
To serve whole artichokes, carefully wash them under cold, running water. Some people cut off the top inch or so of the bud and the tips of the outer leaves because the leaf tips are not edible. However, if you leave the tip on the leaf, you can use it as a handle. Inside each leaf is a choke, or thistle, which isn't edible. Around the choke is the tender heart.
To cook artichokes, place them stem down in a pot of boiling water. Cover the pot, and let it come back to a boil. The artichokes will retain more of their color if you lift the lid a few times during cooking. Cook for 20 to 40 minutes, or until an inner leaf will pull out easily.
If you prefer to steam your vegetables, add about an inch of boiling water to the pot, or use a steamer basket. This will also take 25 to 40 minutes.
The microwave, as usual, has shortened the cooking process considerably. Rinse, but do not dry, the artichokes. Wrap each one in plastic wrap, and put them upside-down in a microwave-safe dish. One artichoke will take four to seven minutes on high power. Add about three minutes for each additional artichoke cooked at the same time.
Eating an artichoke can be either a gastronomically sensual experience or a real mess. Pull off one leaf at a time, starting at the bottom. Dip the fleshy base of the leaf into a sauce of some kind, and draw it through your teeth so that you scrape off the tender part of the leaf. Then discard the rest.
Since you actually eat very little of it, a 12-ounce artichoke--without sauce--only has about 25 calories. Of course, in the good old days, artichoke leaves were dipped in melted butter or Hollandaise sauce. Fortunately, we can now make plenty of nonfat or low-fat dips using yogurt or nonfat sour cream, spices or baby shrimp.
Tiny artichokes are edible once they've been trimmed, and they can be sauteed or stir-fried whole, along with the bottoms and hearts of regular-size artichokes.
Dr. Sheldon Margen is a professor of public health at UC Berkeley; Dale A. Ogar is managing editor of the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter. Send questions to Dale Ogar, School of Public Health, UC Berkeley, Berkeley, CA 94720-7360, or e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Eating Smart usually appears the second and fourth Mondays of the month.