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A guide to get easily to the heart of an artichoke

A guide to get easily to the heart of an artichoke

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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?

Even the name is unappetizing. Do you really want to associate choking with eating?

I didn’t grow up eating artichokes. It wasn’t until I had children that I tasted the jarred variety in one of its most common preparations — baked spinach-artichoke dip. Made with creamed cheese, mayonnaise, sour cream, Parmesan cheese and garlic, the warm dip is standard party fare because it’s easy to make and super tasty.

Artichokes are tricky to handle and eat. Their tough spiky bracts, or leaves, promise to puncture your fingertips. The fuzzy white centers — known as chokes — which protect the tender heart, can get stuck in your throat if you don’t meticulously scrape out all the fibers.

Yet the other day, after watching video after YouTube video, I cleaned and then cooked about a dozen of the spiky green globes. And I was smiling.

I thank actor Stanley Tucci for that.

I’m a big fan of his two Italian cookbooks. But his new Italy travel show on CNN, “Stanley Tucci: Searching for Italy,” is nothing short of magical.

In each of its six episodes, he eats his way through a region of Italy. He showcases special foods — in envy-inducing bites — from a particular region along with the age-old cooking methods that define them.

Week two landed him in Rome, where he sampled the sweet buns, maritozzi, tasted bowls of rigatoni all’amatriciana and carbonara, stopped by an offal restaurant for some unusual organ meats, and most delightfully, introduced viewers to carciofi alla giudia, Jewish-style fried artichokes.

Born in Rome’s Jewish ghetto, the dish transformed unloved ingredients into a “food for the ages,” he tells viewers. Fried artichokes turned Jewish cooking into the “third pillar of Roman cuisine.” When I watched him taste the crispy, golden-brown artichokes, I wanted to taste them, too.

The following weekend, I headed to the grocery store to make it happen.

First things first. While it’s classified and eaten as a vegetable, an artichoke is actually the unflowered bud from a large plant in the thistle family. That explains why it’s spiny on the outside and hairy on the inside.

There are more than a dozen artichoke varieties, but the most common one sold in U.S. grocery stores is green globe. An artichoke can reach the size of a softball and should feel heavy for its size. A fresh one will have tightly packed leaves, and it should squeak ever so slightly when you squeeze it. Prices range from $2.99 per artichoke at Giant Eagle and $3.49 at Whole Foods.

Don’t worry about the brownish spots on the leaves or stem. Artichokes turn black immediately when a cut part comes into contact with air. Frost also will cause spots. They can last in the refrigerator, unwashed, for about a week with no problem.

Despite the fact they’re often served with a boatload of melted butter, artichokes are generally a healthful, whole food. Along with being rich in fiber, they are loaded with antioxidants and nutrients like vitamin C and iron and can aid with digestion and liver function.

To get to the pale, creamy-looking heart that’s so delicious, all you need is a bowl of lemon water, a pair of kitchen shears, a sharp paring knife and a chef’s knife (serrated works well, too). It’s probably good to have a waste basket next to your cutting board because the leaves, which are too bitter to eat, will really pile up as you clean the artichokes.

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.

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 couple more how-to videos, I taught myself how to pull the cooked flesh out of each pedal with my teeth after dipping it in butter. I also fried a few in olive oil after slicing them in half for an authentic Stanley Tucci 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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