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Slow down, peel away, enjoy Simmered Artichokes

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Eating an artichoke for the first time is an experience one remembers forever. Years ago, maybe 15 or so, my friend Cathy taught me how to eat the beautifully shaped green vegetable I'd often stopped to admire in the grocery store.

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Cathy had already cooked the artichokes by the time I arrived at her house. As we sat at her table, she showed me how to pluck the leaves from the artichoke, one by one, dip them into a pool of melted butter, and scrape each leaf between my teeth to release the tiny bit of flesh within. As I peeled away the leaves, getting closer and closer to the center of the artichoke, they became more tender. The flavor of the flesh was soft and subtle, leaving a floral aftertaste in my mouth. I finally came to a pale cream-colored bristly cap - the choke. My friend told me to pull the choke away. That is part of the artichoke we don't eat. Under that fuzzy choke is the tender edible heart, the prize I had been working toward.

Life slowed down as my friend and I sat together and chatted as we ate our artichokes. The slow, relaxed dining experience gave us the opportunity to be present with our food and with each other.

Once I learned how to eat artichokes, I was no longer intimidated by the thistle-like flower and its thorny petals. I watched Erin Andrus Haefele prepare an artichoke for steaming recently when I was at her store, Green Scene, in Walker, Minn. She said she learned how to prepare and eat artichokes from her mother and she has introduced her own daughters to the soothing ritual of eating artichokes.

When I had friends over for artichokes the other day, I served the globes of tender petals with Aromatic Compound Butter and Spicy Dip.

Aromatic Compound Butter, a mixture of softened butter, a tiny bit of olive oil and fresh herbs, is a simple way to add elegance to a cooked artichoke. Pluck the leaves from the artichoke and swipe the creamy colored ends across the soft butter before sliding the petal between your teeth.

Spicy Dip has a base of mayonnaise. Sriracha, a sweet, tangy paste made with sun-ripened chile peppers, garlic, vinegar, sugar and salt, adds a zing of hot spice, giving the dip its name. Curry powder is a nice blend of spices to balance the flavorful dip.

Both dips can be made early in the day you will be serving artichokes. Serve them at room temperature.

Shop for artichokes that are tightly furled and firm. They should feel heavy for their size. Store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator and use as soon as possible.

Don't be intimated by artichokes. Once you've prepared them and eaten them with family and friends, you'll find pleasure in the way they force you to slow down, be present and interact with the people who are seated around the table with you. You'll be hooked on artichokes.

Simmered Artichokes

4 fresh artichokes

4 cloves garlic

2 dried bay leaves

1 lemon, quartered, seeds removed

Rinse artichokes well under cold running water to remove any unwanted residue. Use a sharp chef's knife to cut off the top 1/4 of each artichoke, mostly leaf tops that you won't need. Use scissors to cut the pointed tips from the leaves that remain on the artichoke. Snap off any small, tough leaves from the base of the artichoke. Cut off the stem, leaving an inch.

Place artichokes in large pot, cut side down. Add 2 inches of water to the pot. Drop in whole garlic cloves, bay leaves and lemon quarters, giving them a little squeeze as you add them to the pot. Bring water to a boil. Reduce to a simmer. Cover pot and cook artichokes 30 to 45 minutes, depending on their size. You will know artichokes are done when you can easily pull a leaf off and a fork will easily slide into the base of the artichoke.

Serve artichokes with Aromatic Compound Butter and Spicy Dip. Provide a bowl for discarding leaves. Serves 4.

Aromatic Compound Butter

1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, room temperature

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons minced fresh herbs

Sea salt

Use an electric mixer to beat the butter in a medium bowl until it is light and creamy. Add olive oil and minced fresh herbs. Beat until oil is completely incorporated into the butter, forming a very light and creamy mixture. Put Compound Butter in shallow bowls for serving. Sprinkle with sea salt.

Spicy Dip

1/2 cup mayonnaise or vegenaise

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

1 teaspoon sriracha

2 teaspoons curry powder or spice blend of your choice

Juice from 1/4 of a lime

Use a spoon to blend all ingredients together.

Tips from the cook

--For the Aromatic Compound Butter, I used a mixture of fresh chives, thyme, marjoram, tarragon, oregano, rosemary and basil, all picked from my garden.

--Find Sriracha in a bottle in the international aisle of most grocery stores or in Asian markets.

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