No vegetable is armored as formidably as a crab or lobster, but the artichoke probably comes closest. The edible flower bud of an oversized thistle, it's a veritable fortress made up of spiky, tight-packed leaves. Despite this forbidding exterior, the artichoke's flesh is unusually mild and delicate in flavor. You can prepare artichokes in many ways, but stuffing and serving them as appetizers or a side dish provides an especially showy option.
Getting the artichoke ready to stuff requires several steps, mostly centered around disarming it of its spikes.
Cut a lemon in half and set it near your work surface.
Trim away the stem at the base of each artichoke, making a flat bottom so it will sit upright in the baking dish. Pull off the outer two layers of thick, spiky leaves or cut them away with a paring knife.
Lay the artichoke on a cutting board and cut off its tip, taking away roughly the last 1/4 inch of its length. Snip the point from each of the remaining leaves with a pair of kitchen shears, leaving blunt, straight-cut edges. Rub every cut edge with a half-lemon, to keep the artichoke from turning brown.
Pull open the center of the artichoke with your thumbs to reveal the fuzzy "choke" inside, the portion of the bud that would have become thistledown. Scrape it out with a spoon, then squeeze a few drops of lemon juice into the cavity.
Set aside your first artichoke and repeat the same process with the remainder.
The artichokes can be stuffed raw, or par-boiled for 5 minutes to soften them and make them easier to stuff. There's no right or wrong, it's a simple matter of personal preference.
Most recipes call for a stuffing of breadcrumbs, garlic and cheese, often with the addition of fresh herbs, nuts or citrus zest. Feel free to play with this formula, swapping out the breadcrumbs for grains such as bulgur wheat, millet or quinoa. Add shredded vegetables for moisture, or browned ground beef or chicken for a more savory filling. Avoid custards and other liquid fillings, which would seep out of the artichoke.
Once you've settled on a filling and prepared it, you're ready to proceed.
Pry open the center of the artichoke gently and pack the cavity loosely with filling.
Open up each successive layer of leaves in turn, dropping filling between the layers, until the entire artichoke is filled.
Transfer the finished artichokes one at a time to a baking dish.
Baking the 'Chokes
Heat the oven to 400 F. While it's warming, carefully pour a cup or two of water, broth or white wine into the baking dish. Drizzle the stuffing lightly with oil or melted butter -- it's optional but helps with browning -- and cover the baking dish tightly with aluminum foil. Bake for 50 to 60 minutes -- 5 to 10 minutes less if they're par-boiled -- removing the foil after the first half-hour so the stuffing can brown and crisp. The artichokes are done when you can pierce them easily with a toothpick or wooden skewer.
Serve the finished artichokes as a shared appetizer, or as a side dish with grilled meats or poultry. They're good either hot or at room temperature.