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The artichoke is native to the Mediterranean, and is part of the thistle group of flowers. The artichoke vegetable that we eat is actually the flower bud from this large plant, which can grow to six feet in diameter and four feet in height. 100% of the artichokes grown in the United States for domestic use are grown in California. The most common type of artichoke that is sold in grocery stores is the Green Globe artichoke.

Artichokes can be somewhat expensive because of the intense labor necessary to harvest them. Each bud must be harvested by hand, and it can take up to two years for a plant to begin producing buds.

Many people are intimidated by the artichoke, and don't quite know what to do with it. However, there are some simple ways to prepare this fine vegetable, which has a delicate, somewhat nutty flavor and fancy appearance. While many people eat the leaves as well as the succulent heart, sometimes the leaves are left off altogether and only the "choke" is served, topped with a variety of sauces.

Basic instructions for preparing your artichoke:

1. With a sharp knife, cut off the stem at the bottom, leaving about ½ inch, so the artichoke can rest firmly on its base without toppling over. Make sure to pull off any small or coarse leaves at the base.

2. With scissors, snip off the thorny tip from each leaf.

3. Cut about 1 inch off the top of the artichoke, leaving a flat top.

4. Rinse the artichoke under cold, running water. Gently spread the leaves apart to make sure they are well cleaned.

5. With your fingers, carefully spread the centermost leaves, and pull out the little cone of purplish prickly leaves in the very center. Scrape out the hairy "choke" with a small spoon, leaving only the meaty heart. Sprinkle the exposed bottom with several drops of lemon juice to prevent discoloring, and press the outer leaves of the artichoke back into their original shape. Note: You can also remove the hairy choke after cooking, but the artichoke is more likely to be damaged as it has become very tender from cooking.

Cooking and Serving the Artichoke:

1. Put the artichoke in a saucepan or pot large enough to hold them without allowing them to tip over, and add cold water to cover them.

2. Bring water to a boil, then reduce heat and allow to simmer until artichoke is tender. This can take anywhere from 15-45 minutes, depending on the size and freshness of the artichoke. The artichoke is ready when its leaves are easily pulled off, and the choke in the middle is tender when pierced with a fork. Note: Artichokes can also be steamed.

3. Drain the artichokes upside down on a rack, and then serve hot with garlic mayonnaise, melted butter or lemon butter for dipping.

4. If you want to get creative, make your favorite stuffing and stuff the artichoke after it is cooked. Or, drizzle olive oil and lemon juice over the whole thing. It's up to you: there are endless variations!