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Snipping the thorny ends off of an artichoke's leaves with kitchen shears will make it easier to handle. / Photo by Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette/TNS

Is there an ingredient you're leery of, either because it's intimidating or you clueless about how to cook it?

For me, that is the artichoke.

I've listened to my Italian neighbor, Josephine, sing its praises on multiples occasions. I'm pretty sure she breaks into song when it comes in season in March. I, on other hand, feel cleaning and cooking an artichoke looks like too much work. Also, what's up with having to strip the artichoke "meat" from inside the petals with your teeth?

First know what you're going to cook with the artichokes before getting started. If you're steaming them, you'll need to trim the leaves.If you're going to use only the hearts, you'll need to do a lot more peeling and paring. If you don't want to deal with the hairy chokes, go with the hairless baby artichokes.

 

HOW-TO

Here's how to trim artichokes and get to its heart.

First, cut a couple of lemons in half and squeeze the juice into a large bowl of ice water, then toss the halves in. As you trim the artichokes, toss them into the water to keep them from browning. Alternatively, you can rub the artichoke with cut lemons as you go along.

Next, if you are steaming the artichokes, cut off the excess stem so it will sit flat and upright in the steamer.

Starting at the bottom, remove the tough and smaller leaves toward the base with your fingers. Then, using the kitchen shears, cut the thorny end of each individual leaf. Remember occasionally to dip the artichoke in the lemon water or rub a cut lemon over the artichoke as you go.

When the leaves are all trimmed, cut an inch or so off the top of the artichoke, spread the leaves with your fingers, give it a final rinse under some running water and you will be ready to rock and roll.

If you're only going to use the hearts, you'll need to pull off all of the leaves until you hit the yellow part, where it feels soft and tender. Then, cut off the top, and trim the bottom of the artichoke of anything green. Finally, trim and peel the stem.

To remove the choke, spread the leaves out like a flower and using your fingers or a spoon, pull out the purple leaves and everything that's fuzzy. Or cut the artichoke in half or quarters, and use a spoon or your fingers to scrape away the choke.

Once cleaned, an artichoke can be cooked in any number of ways. Steaming is a classic preparation, but it also can be boiled, baked, fried or even grilled. Whatever method you choose, you'll know it is done when it can be easily pricked with a fork.

You can eat the artichoke as is with a little melted butter, mayo or hollandaise sauce. Or you cut it to add to pasta, blend into hummus, use as a topping for pizza or pair with other vegetables in a saute. The possibilities are endless.

You also can eat the hearts raw as a salad, sliced super-thin and dressed with a little lemon and olive oil.

I first steamed half of my artichokes. After watching a a few how-to videos, I taught myself how to pull the cooked flesh out of each petal with my teeth after dipping it in butter. I also fried a few in olive oil after slicing them in half for an authentic Italian experience.

After cutting the last two artichokes down to the core, I steamed and then packed them into Mason jars with a garlicky marinade of olive oil and white wine vinegar. To further kick up the flavor, I added a splash of chili pepper olive oil from Liokareas. I cannot wait to have that as a topping on pizza.

Artichoke season runs through May, so maybe you, too, will be inspired to tackle one of spring's most intimidating offerings. I hope you'll feel proud of of tasty results as I was.

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Artichokes look intimidating, but they're actually very easy to cook and have tender, flavorful leaves. The peak season is March through May. / Photo by Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette/TNS

 

Easy Steamed Artichokes

This classic preparation is probably the easiest way to cook artichokes. To eat, pull off a cooked leaf from the top, dip it into some butter, mayo or Hollandaise sauce, and then scrap the flesh off with your teeth. Remember to remove the fuzzy choke with a spoon before eating the heart.

4 medium artichokes (about 12 ounces each)

4 lemons, divided

1 tablespoon coarse salt

Hollandaise sauce, mayonnaise or melted butter for serving, optional

Trim stem so artichoke stands upright, then snap off tough outer leaves. Snip remaining sharp or spiky tips using kitchen shears. Using a serrated or chef's knife, cut off the top third or so of the artichoke.

Cut 2 lemons in half and squeeze the juice into a large bowl of ice water, then toss the halves in. Set aside

Rub surfaces of the artichoke with the third lemon, halved crosswise, to prevent discoloration, or dip it into lemon water. Repeat with remaining artichokes and lemon.

Set a steamer basket in a large pot. Add enough water so it reaches just below the basket. Squeeze lemon juice from 4th lemon into water, and add salt. Bring to a boil.

Place artichokes in steamer basket. Cover pot, and steam until heart is tender when pierced with a tip of a paring knife and inner leaves pull out easily, 25 to 35 minutes; add more water to pot, if necessary.

Serve warm or at room temperature with Hollandaise sauce, mayonnaise or melted butter for dipping.

Makes 4 servings.

— Adapted from marthastewart.com

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Remove any small, tough leaves toward the base on the stem of the artichoke. / Photo by Gretchen McKay/Post-Gazette/TNS

 

Fried Artichokes

Fried artichokes are crispy like french fries but so much sweeter. The original recipe calls for frying the artichokes twice for maximum crispness, spread out like flowers, but I opted to instead cut them in half and only fry them once. It was faster. You don't need anything other than salt for serving.

2 tablespoons fine sea salt, or to taste

1 teaspoon ground black pepper, or to taste

Juice and rind of 2 lemons

8 American globe artichokes

Olive oil for frying

Mix salt and pepper in a small bowl. Fill a large bowl with water, and add juice and rinds of lemons. Set both bowls aside.

Using a sharp paring or bird's beak knife, shave off the tough outer leaves of artichokes until you reach the tender pale green or yellow leaves and create a bulbous shape.

Cut off at least an inch of the thorny top. Trim the stem near the heart, peeling off the outer green fiber and leaving about 2 inches of stem if possible. Immediately put the artichokes in the lemon water to prevent browning.

Fill an electric fryer or deep cast-iron enameled pot with enough oil to almost cover artichokes. Heat to 325 degrees. While oil is heating, dry artichokes well with paper towels. Cut cleaned artichokes in halves or quarters, remove the hairy choke, and sprinkle with salt and pepper, rubbing in the seasoning.

Fry artichokes in batches. Cook, turning occasionally with tongs, for about 15 minutes, or until a fork easily pierces the stem at its thickest point. The outside should be bronzed.

Drain well, and serve immediately with a sprinkle of salt. Eat with your fingers.

Yields 16 artichoke halves.

— Adapted from nyt.com

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