Enjoy 'au naturel' artichoke flavor

An artichoke, above all else, is a wonder to behold.

There's that beautiful shape. That rich, green color. The way you have to slowly pluck it, leaf by leaf, to reach the succulent center.

For dipping purposes, you've got your mayonnaise, some melted butter or maybe just a light vinaigrette. But that's really all you need to wow a roomful of guests.

But how to cook 'em? My theory is, if you want to avoid a watery artichoke — especially when it comes to the heart — then you should cook it with the stem pointing skyward in just a few inches of water, so the heart portion is basically steamed rather than boiled.

Once they're cooked, there's still the controversy over how to eat them. Most newcomers to the world of artichoke cuisine can't believe we go to all this effort for such little payoff. After all, at least 85 percent of an artichoke is inedible; you're only after that tender morsel at the tip of each leaf and — oh, yeah — that succulent heart.

My approach is to simply pull leaves off from the main globe one at a time, beginning with the smallest ones around the stem, and work my way toward the center. When you pull off a leaf, you'll notice a plump, little portion of artichoke meat at the base of the leaf.

If this is your first, genuine artichoke, then I highly recommend tasting it "au naturel." No mayonnaise or butter or other type of sauce. Just you and a pure artichoke experience. To do this, just scrape off that plump tip by gently biting down on the leaf slightly ahead of the edible portion and scraping it through your front teeth. The fibrous leaf comes out, the tender pulp stays behind.

For the remaining leaves, you certainly have the option of continuing to eat them in their unsauced state. (Why pick up any bad habits if you don't have to?) Or you can do what most artichoke lovers do: Justify consuming vast amounts of mayonnaise and butter by dipping the pulpy tip of your artichoke leaves into one of those offerings before eating.

By the way, you'll want to experiment with the leaf orientation as it's inserted into your mouth. That is, try some leaves with the pulpy portion facing up, some with the pulpy portion facing down. One way will feel more enjoyable than the other, and that's how you'll inevitably continue to eat them for the rest of your life.

Anyway, once you reach the fuzzy center, you're ready to enjoy the ultimate reward: the heart. Scrape the "choke" from the meaty bottom by using a spoon or knife. The big, thick, disk of artichoke you're left with is the heart. Using fingers or fork, dip portions of it into your dipping sauce (unless you're being pure) and enjoy!

Of course, if you love artichokes as much as I do, then a little variety eventually is called for. The smaller ones — called "babies" or "artichoke hearts" — can be incorporated into pasta sauces, vegetable stews and salads and eaten in their entirety. Medium to jumbo-sized globes can be stuffed. As you'll see from the accompanying recipes, this opens up a whole new realm of artichoke cookery.

Perhaps you've already noticed some really fine-quality artichokes have been arriving in local supermarkets. But you still have to be vigilant when it comes to quality. Remember, in order to pick the absolute freshest, administer my "squeeze-and-squeak" test: When you gently press around the circumference with your fingers, a truly fresh artichoke will emit a delicate, little squeak.

As the season evolves, I'll be posting more recipes for artichoke sauces and preparations on my blog at www.janrd.com. Enjoy!

Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, cookbook author and artist. Readers can contact her by e-mail at janrd@proaxis.com.

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