Long ago, goes the story, mothers used an "artichoke advisory test" to assess their daughters' suitors.
The test: The young man was invited to dinner, served an artichoke and, "if he knew how to eat it, the mother knew he was well-bred," says Patty Boman of the California Artichoke Advisory Board.
Times have changed. Amorous young men no longer are called suitors. And most people know how to eat artichokes; it's the cooking that gives them pause, Ms. Boman says.
Forget the fact that few people have the time to leisurely enjoy a food that's eaten leaf by leaf. Ms. Boman insists the real obstacle to artichoke appreciation is our national fear of fixing them.
"But you can just toss them in water and steam them and serve them with a dip," she says.
And a whole range of possibilities exist for cooks who really know their 'chokes: "You can stuff them, saute them or fry them," she says.
Domestic artichokes are grown commercially only in California, with 75 percent of the cultivation in Monterey County, writes Patricia Rain in "The Artichoke Cookbook" (Celestial Arts,$7.95). It's no wonder that most of the country still misunderstands the artichoke.
California artichokes are planted, cultivated and harvested by hand. Artichokes often are thought of as a spring crop, but
they grow year-round. About half are produced during the peak spring season of March through May. Every June, the fields are cut back to ensure a better fall and winter crop. Because of the constant growth, artichoke fields may be harvested up to 30 times a year.
Freezes in California last year damaged the entire winter crop, Ms. Boman says. But the spring crop was typically bountiful.
"All this meticulous handwork brings a premium, quality crop," Ms. Rain says. "But it also is a reason why artichokes are seldom an 'everyday' food like potatoes and carrots."
Artichoke prices range between 65 and 90 cents apiece during spring and summer. They're about twice that in the winter months.
In spring and winter, look for compact, firm artichokes that are heavy for their size. Summer and fall artichokes tend to be flared and cone-shaped. Choose spring and summer artichokes with an even green color. Light frosts often cause fall and winter artichokes to have bronze-tinged outer leaves. These are considered to be premier artichokes -- tender and tasty.
Only about a quarter of a 12-ounce artichoke is edible, Ms. Boman says. But that portion is rich in iodine and potassium and a good source of vitamins A, B and C.
The 12-ounce artichoke weighs in at a skimpy 25 calories, with negligible fat.
Most of that edible one-fourth of the artichoke is the "heart" -- the pale green inner leaves and the firm-fleshed base. Use small artichokes for recipes that call for the heart. Larger artichokes can be used if necessary; just cut the hearts into quarters.
Recipes that refer to the artichoke "bottom" mean the firm-fleshed base, with the leaves and fuzzy center removed. Use large artichokes for these dishes.
If this all sounds like too much trouble, take heart: Both artichoke hearts and bottoms are sold canned or frozen.
Or try baby artichokes. These California wonders can be prepared and cooked just like their big siblings. But most baby artichokes have no fibrous center. By trimming off the tougher outer leaves, you get a completely edible artichoke.
Warm artichoke and scallop salad Makes 4 servings.
2 large cooked artichokes
12 ounces bay scallops
1/2 cup lime juice
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro stems
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon cornstarch
3 drops hot pepper sauce
1/2 cup grated Swiss cheese
To cook artichokes, place in a large pot and add water to cover. Put pot on stove over high heat. Boil 20 to 45 minutes, depending on size, or until a petal near center pulls out easily.
Or place on a steaming rack over a large pot of boiling water. Cover and steam for about 25 to 40 minutes; add 10 to 20 minutes to cooking time, if necessary. Test for doneness as described above.
Cut artichokes in half lengthwise. Remove center petals and fuzzy centers. Place scallops, lime juice and cilantro stems in a microwave-safe container; marinate 10 minutes. Cover with wax paper. Microwave at medium (50 percent power) for 5 minutes.
Remove scallops from marinade. Strain marinade into microwave-safe container; stir in cilantro leaves, sugar, cornstarch and hot pepper sauce. Microwave at high (100 percent power) for 2 minutes.
Arrange scallops on each artichoke half; drizzle with heated mixture. Garnish with Swiss cheese. Microwave at medium 2 minutes or until thoroughly heated.
* Baby artichoke risotto Makes 6 servings.
6 to 8 (about 1 pound) baby artichokes
3 tablespoons olive oil (divided use)
1 teaspoon lemon juice
4 to 4 1/2 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons minced onion
1 small clove garlic, minced
2 cups uncooked Italian arborio rice or medium-grain rice
1/2 teaspoon dried basil, crushed
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crushed
salt and pepper to taste