Artichokes look scary, it’s true, but as long as you are clear in your mind what you are trying to do when preparing them, it’s just a process.
The artichoke is a flower which we eat as a bud, before it blooms. Although artichoke flowers with their mauve petals and spiky tips are striking, you don’t want them to bloom if you want them for food! You can eat immature buds which have not yet formed a choke raw, thinly sliced (these are delicious served with a lemony dressing, or preserved in oil), but you are most likely going to eat them once they are fully formed but before they start to dry.
The best bit of an artichoke is known as the heart, the base or the fond. It’s the meaty base to which the leaves are attached with the stalk underneath. The stalk, if in good condition, is nice and meaty and edible, too. Nestled above the base is a collection of fibrous ‘hairs’ called the choke – and, yes, it could choke you if you ate it unexpectedly. This needs to be scraped out with a teaspoon, but you should do it carefully because you don’t want to scrape out any of the edible flesh underneath it. The choke can be removed before or after cooking, but it should never be served still in place.
The tips of the leaves have nothing edible, so they are removed. Common practice is to lop off the top third of the artichoke, then, if the leaf tips are spiky (some are like thorns), these are nipped off with scissors (New Zealand artichokes don’t seem to be so spiky!).
This allows you to see inside the artichoke. You can jiggle the leaves around, opening the artichoke up, removing any small spiky leaves in the centre as you do so, and expose the choke. Then you can scrape it out. Artichokes prepared this way can be rubbed with lemon, herbs and oil, with stalk left on or removed, and gently steamed or simmered in a little white wine until tender.
An easier and faster way for the novice is to cut the artichokes in half. The choke is easily identified and easily scraped out.
If you are in a hurry, and this is especially handy for large mature artichokes, cook them intact, and do the fiddly bits once they’re cool enough to handle: trim, wriggle the leaves to open them up and remove the choke (or cut them in half and remove it). Serve with a tasty vinaigrette for dipping the leaves into, or discard all the leaves and chop the heart and add to a pasta sauce or sizzle in a little butter and garlic.
Yes, yes, I’ve got to talk about the leaves. Some of them are inedible, and need to go (before or after cooking). Then there are some which have a tiny nugget of gorgeously tender artichoke meat at the bottom where they were attached to the base. Oh joy! This is the bit of the leaf that you dunk into juices and prise off with your teeth. You then suck off any juices on the leaf and discard it. Yep, you just work your way around the artichoke eating more and more of each leaf as you go until nearer the centre you’ll find beautifully tender leaves. It’s all rather primal and messy and that’s part of the fun. Like crab claws, you get your rewards if you stick with it.
Needless to say, you need a side bowl for discarded leaves. This has been finger work up until now. Wash your fingers (fancy restaurants provide water bowls with lemon slices for this purpose), then eat the artichoke heart with a knife and fork. Alternatively, you can separate the artichoke into base and leaves from the get go.
Remove any greenery from artichokes but keep the stalks attached if they are undamaged because they can be cooked along with the artichokes. Remove any bruised outer leaves from the artichokes. Wash artichokes and shake dry. Peel stalks with a vegetable peeler. Chop off top third of artichokes and discard. Cut off stalks. Cut artichokes in half. Remove the choke with a teaspoon (the central fibrous fluff) being careful not to scrape away the meaty part underneath it because that is the ‘heart’ (the best bit). Work quickly and squeeze artichokes with lemon juice as you go to stop them browning too much. As the artichokes are done, put them in a bowl of water with the squeezed lemon halves.