Artichokes are a tasty but unconventional vegetable, with a core of delicately flavored flesh surrounded by a thicket of tough, spiny leaves. Eating whole artichokes is an adventure, which begins with pulling off the leaves and eating their soft undersides, finally finishing with the tender bottom. In the center of the vegetable is a fibrous section called the choke, which is usually removed before cooking. Eating the choke causes no harm, but it isn't pleasant.
The artichoke is actually a large flower bud, which explains its odd anatomy. The "choke" in the middle will become the blossom, while the spiny leaves support and protect the flower. It's a member of the thistle family native to the Mediterranean, thought to be refined from its lesser-known cousin, the cardoon. The large outer leaves, tender heart and firm bottom are all both tasty and well-flavored, and even the stem can be peeled and eaten. The choke and the fibrous portion of the outer leaves are discarded.
The choke itself is a light and fibrous area in the middle of the artichoke, tightly surrounded by the clustered leaves. It's stringy, fluffy and fibrous, as unpleasant in the mouth as hay or a bundle of string. If you allowed an artichoke to ripen and blossom, this would be the familiar fluffy thistledown you're accustomed to seeing along the roadside. It's usually removed while preparing the artichoke.
Preparing the Artichoke
If you're preparing the artichokes whole, start by snipping the spiny ends from the leaves with a pair of scissors, then cutting off the tapered tip of the bud. Using your fingers or the handles of a pair of spoons, carefully spread the leaves until you expose the choke. Reach in with a teaspoon or grapefruit spoon, and carefully scrape the fluffy choke from its cavity. If you're only using the artichoke bottom in your recipe, trim off the outer leaves with a paring knife and sever the leaves from the base. Most of the choke will come away, as well. Scrape out the remainder, then place the artichoke bottom in a bowl of water and lemon juice to keep it from browning.
If you plan to cut up the artichokes before serving, or to cook them and later use the cold artichokes as an ingredient, remove the choke after cooking rather than before. Steam or bake the artichoke, and let it cool. Spread the leaves as you would with a raw artichoke -- they're easier to work with after cooking -- and carefully remove the choke with a spoon. If the artichokes are halved, sliced or quartered, you can remove the choke from each slice individually with the tip of a paring knife. If you remove the choke after cooking, the base of the artichoke will be very tender, so be careful not to scrape away flesh with the choke.