The reason for the globe artichoke's tough exterior is that this vegetable is actually the flower bud of a plant in the thistle family.
While artichokes are available year-round, they are at their peak in spring. Look for artichokes that are heavy and firm with tightly packed leaves. Because of the many varieties, the color may vary from deep green to purple. Use artichokes the day you purchase them or cover and refrigerate for up to 4 days. Larger artichokes have larger hearts and are great for serving whole with a dipping sauce. Plan on one artichoke per person or cut a cooked artichoke in half lengthwise to serve two. Very small artichokes are more tender and can be eaten whole (leaves and all), either raw or cooked.
Eating an artichoke is a ritual in itself, as you deconstruct it, one leaf at a time, to get to the real prize -- the crown. If you like, choose from the sauces below or serve with melted butter.
Tip: The crown is also called the base or bottom, and sometimes the heart. The heart, however, actually refers to the crown when it still has the edible, more tender leaves attached.
Herb-Butter Sauce: Melt 1/4 cup butter. Stir in 1 tablespoon lemon juice and 1 teaspoon snipped fresh dill, tarragon, or oregano, or 1/4 teaspoon dried dill weed, tarragon, or oregano, crushed. Makes 2 servings.
Lemon-Mustard Mayo: In a small bowl stir together 1/2 cup mayonnaise or salad dressing, 1/2 teaspoon finely shredded lemon peel, 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, and 1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard. Season to taste with ground black pepper. Serve with warm or chilled artichokes. Makes 4 servings.
Curry Dip: In a small bowl stir together 1/2 cup mayonnaise or salad dressing, 1 teaspoon lemon juice, 1 teaspoon prepared horseradish, 1 teaspoon finely chopped onion, 1 teaspoon curry paste or 1 teaspoon curry powder, and 1/8 teaspoon salt. Cover and chill for 2 to 24 hours before serving with chilled artichokes. Makes 4 servings.