In certain respects, the artichoke might be regarded as the vegetable equivalent of lobster. It's somewhat labour intensive eating, but well worth the effort. The artichoke can be served whole or trimmed down to the heart, which, like the lobster's tail, is often considered the tastiest part.

Because of its seemingly intricate structure, many people have never tried this vegetable, an unfortunate omission, since the artichoke is not only delicious, but is also a rich source of vitamin C, folate, dietary fibre, and a multitude of minerals.

A single artichoke is actually an unopened flower bud from a thistlelike plant with the Latin name of Cynara scolymus. Each green cone-shaped bud consists of several parts: overlapping outer leaves that are tough and inedible at the tip, but fleshy and tender at the base; an inedible choke, or thistle, which is enclosed within a light-colored cone of immature leaves; and a round, firm-fleshed base. This meaty base, informally called the "heart," but technically called the bottom—is the part that you work your way toward when eating a large artichoke. Commercially available artichoke "hearts" come from tiny whole artichokes, which have almost no chokes.

Artichokes vary greatly in size. Differences are not related to quality or maturity, but are determined by the part of the stalk the buds grow on--large ones on the center stalk, smaller ones on side branches, and "baby" artichokes (weighing about 55g) at the base. The largest artichokes, entree-sized specimens weighing a half a kilo or more are best when stuffed with a savoury filling and served hot or cold; the medium-size ones are recommended for eating with sauces as an appetiser; and the babies, which are completely edible when properly trimmed are often marinated and served in salads and in hot or cold antipastos.

The shape of this vegetable also varies. While spherical and oval-shaped artichokes are preferred for market, a more cylindrical shape is quite common. Even conical shaped artichokes have been produced.

Whatever its size or shape, an artichoke should be compact and heavy for its size, with leaves, or scales, that are fleshy, thick, firm, and tightly closed; if they look dry and woody, or have begun to spread apart, the artichoke is past its prime. Check the stem end for tiny holes, these are signs of worm damage, which will probably be even more extensive inside the artichoke.

Spring artichokes should be a soft green; those picked in the autumnl and winter tend to be olive green, and may have bronze-tipped leaves or a slightly blistered, whitish outer surface. This "winter-kissed" effect, as it is called by the growers, is the result of exposure to a light frost in the fields; it does not affect the taste or tenderness of the artichoke. Don't, however, confuse blackened or wilted leaves, or dark bruised spots, with the normal bronzing of frost-touched artichokes.

Many supermarkets sell artichokes either packaged in cans and jars or frozen. These have the advantage of being ready to eat, as all the inedible parts have already been removed. Canned artichoke hearts usually come packed in brine; rinse and drain them before serving to reduce their high sodium content. Marinated artichoke hearts, sold in jars, are preserved in a seasoned oil or oil-and-vinegar mixture, which will add to their calorie count. However, you can remove some of the fat by pouring off the oil and letting the artichokes drain in a colander.

Frozen artichoke hearts have no added ingredients; follow package directions when cooking them.

Although artichokes appear hardy, they are quite perishable; store them in the refrigerator, in a plastic bag, for no more than four or five days. To keep them moist, sprinkle a few drops of water into the bag and then close the top, but do not rinse or wash the vegetables (or cut or trim them) before storing.

Whole cooked artichokes should be wrapped in plastic wrap or placed in plastic bags; they will keep in the refrigerator for four to five days.

To prepare whole artichokes: Cut off the top inch of the bud, which consists of inedible leaf tips, with a large, sharp knife. Don't cut an artichoke with a carbon-steel knife; it will turn the cut parts black. (If you want, clip off the sharp tips of the remaining outer leaves with scissors.) If you're not cooking them right away, rub the cut parts with lemon juice to keep them from darkening. Pull off any short, coarse leaves from the bottom and cut off the stem flush with the base so the artichoke can stand upright while it cooks.

To prepare baby artichokes: Cut off the bottoms of the stems and the top parts of the leaves. Peel the remaining stem. Remove the outer leaves by bending them back until they snap (the meaty portion will remain attached); stop when you reach the inner, pale green leaves. Pare the outer layers from the artichoke bottoms. Halve each vegetable lengthwise, scoop out the thin center petals, then slice each half lengthwise.

To make artichoke "cups": Some recipes call for the choke to be removed to make a "cup" for stuffing. It's easier to do this after the whole artichoke has been cooked. Prepare the vegetable as for serving whole. Boil, steam, or microwave, then let stand until cool enough to handle. Spread the outer leaves apart, pull out the petals covering the choke, and use a teaspoon to scrape out the choke. The artichoke can be stuffed and then either served as is or baked.

To prepare artichoke "hearts": This, too, is more easily done after the artichoke is cooked. Prepare and cook a whole artichoke. When cool enough to handle, remove all the leaves from the cooked artichoke (save them to eat separately if you want). Discard the thin petals covering the choke, then scrape off the choke with a paring knife. Trim around the bottom with a knife to make it smooth and more visually appealing.

Bake: Make "cups" from cooked artichokes as described above, then fill the cavity and the spaces between the leaves with stuffing. Stand the filled artichokes in a baking dish; add some vegetable broth, chicken stock, or water to the dish to keep the vegetables from drying out, cover with foil, and bake in a 350°F / 180°C / gas mark 4 oven until the filling is heated through. Cooking time: 20 to 30 minutes.

Boil: Place trimmed artichokes, stem end down, in a nonreactive pot of boiling water; the addition of 2 tablespoons of lemon juice or vinegar will help keep the artichokes from darkening and also add flavour. Cover the pan and return the water to a boil; when done, an inner leaf can be pulled out easily. Invert the artichokes in a colander so that they drain thoroughly before serving. Cooking time: 20 to 40 minutes.

Microwave: Trim the artichokes; rinse but do not dry, then place in a microweavable container and cover. Cook on high power, rotating halfway through the cooking time. Remove from the microwave and let stand for 5 minutes. Cooking time: for one artichoke, 4 to 7 minutes; add 3 minutes for each additional artichoke.

Sauté and stir-fry: Sliced artichoke bottoms or hearts can be sauteed or stir-fried in a small amount of oil or stock, alone or with vegetables such as mushrooms or peas. Cooking time: 5 minutes.

Steam: Steam trimmed artichokes in a vegetable steamer, or stand several artichokes in a nonreactive pan just large enough to hold them upright. Add 1" of boiling water and 2 tablespoons of lemon juice (or a lemon wedge). Cover and simmer until tender. Cooking time: 25 to 40 minutes.