Raised in Texas, I never met a fresh artichoke until I moved to California for college, but I've long since made up for lost time. Artichokes are on my table at least once a week during the height of their spring season—March to May—and often during their second wave in autumn. They mingle so readily with the Mediterranean flavors and ingredients I love—garlic, prosciutto, pasta, Parmesan—that I never have to struggle for ways to use them. If you're a newcomer to artichokes, you'll need to master their prickly anatomy, but it's not difficult, and it's definitely worth the effort.
At the market, choose artichokes that feel firm and heavy for their size, a good sign that they're meaty and still full of moisture. Winter cold can cause blistery spots on an artichoke's outer leaves, but growers say the chill improves flavor and call such specimens "frost-kissed." Although I don't hesitate to buy frost-damaged artichokes, I'm not convinced that they're better.
The most prominent perennial cultivar, the Green Globe, tends to be a bit more rounded if it matures in spring and fall when days are shorter. Green Globes that mature in summer, when days are longer, become more conical. Newer to markets are annual varieties that tend to be large and rounded, like a peony about to open. They're gorgeous, but not as tasty as the Globe, and unlike the Globe, they tend to get tighter as they get older. Once you get your artichokes home, store them in a loose, unsealed plastic bag in the vegetable crisper, and try to use them within a day or two. They'll hold up longer than that, but the leaves darken and the texture gets spongier with time.
Artichokes thrive in Mediterranean countries, such as Greece, Italy, Spain, and France. I take my flavor cues from these places when preparing artichokes, turning to lemon, olive oil, garlic, tarragon, mint, oregano, basil, tomato, and dill. Artichokes also love cream; try slipping some thinly sliced artichoke bottoms into a potato gratin. I often use nuts and nut oils with artichokes to echo their own nutty character.
You need to follow a couple of steps to prepare artichoke bottoms and to prepare an artichoke for steaming. But with just a little practice, you'll become adept at trimming them and will be eager to enjoy them as often as I do.