A perennial plant in the thistle group of the sunflower family, artichokes are believed to have originated in the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands. It is often said that artichokes make everything taste better—and it's not just legend. They contain a chemical called cynarin, which is known for stimulating taste bud receptors. They are best in the spring months but are available year-round, and California grows nearly 100% of the crop in the United States.
Baby artichokes are smaller versions of the mature varieties, but are picked from the lower part of the plant, hence the smaller size. They require a bit less cooking time and generally do not have the prickly chokes at their centers that full-size artichokes do. Although boiling and steaming are common preparation methods in the United States, they're delicious when prepared in ways that range beyond the steamer basket. The stems and hearts can be sliced and grilled or sautéed and whole flowers can be fried, grilled, stuffed or roasted. Whatever you do, don't discard the stem—it's just as tender and flavorful as the heart.
Canned or frozen artichoke hearts can stand in in some recipes
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."
Unless you're steaming them whole, artichokes can be fairly labor-intensive to prep. The tough outer leaves must be removed, the cone of inner leaves cut away, and the prickly choke scooped out before the heart is ready to cook. Learn more about cleaning and trimming artichokes at the Test Kitchen blog.
Store artichokes 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.