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, starting with pulling off the leaves and eating their soft undersides, and ending with the tender heart, which is totally worth the effort of getting to. There's just one obstacle: the heart is covered with a fibrous section called the choke. Eating the choke isn't harmful, but it isn't pleasant either.
The artichoke is a member of the thistle family native to the Mediterranean, thought to be refined from its lesser-known cousin, the cardoon. The vegetable is actually a large flower bud. The choke in the middle will become the blossom, and the spiny leaves of the exterior support and protect the flower. The large outer leaves, tender heart and firm bottom are all tasty; even the stem can be peeled and eaten. 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. The choke and the fibrous portion of the outer leaves should be discarded.
Preparing the Artichoke
If you're preparing an artichoke whole, start by snipping the spiny ends from the leaves and the tapered tip of the bud with a pair of scissors. 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 up the fluffy choke.
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 be removed in the process. 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 artichoke before serving, or to cook it and later use cold artichoke 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 artichoke is 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.