Globe artichokes are native to the Mediterranean but chances are good that the 'chokes you buy from the store are from Castroville, California. This is the self-proclaimed "Artichoke Center of the World" and three-quarters of all artichokes grown in the state are grown here. Wherever they’re grown, artichokes are an entirely underestimated vegetable. These unusual-looking bulbs of tough leaves look like nothing you’d want to consume, and yet they are actually a superfood. Artichokes are loaded with fiber, with a single medium-sized globe artichoke providing about 14 percent of one’s daily fiber needs, all while staying low in fat and calories.

Artichokes also have high amounts of inulin, a probiotic that boosts "good" gut bacteria for healthy digestion. In fact, clinical trials have shown that artichokes are great for treating chronic digestive problems like irritable stomach and irritable bowel. They can also help combat high cholesterol, and increase the amount of good cholesterol in the body. They are also high in folic acid, which is especially important for pregnant women. Vitamin C and vitamin K are both found in artichokes, as well as a wealth of antioxidants and the cholesterol-fighting compounds cynarin and sesquiterpene-lactones. One can also get important minerals including copper, calcium, potassium and iron among others by eating an artichoke. So from a healthy heart to a happy stomach, from combating cancer to boosting immunity and fighting fat, the humble artichoke is your best friend.

The challenge for most, though, is how to cook them. According to "Eating on the Wild Side," "[B]oiling artichokes increases their antioxidant levels, an exception to the general rule that boiled vegetables are less nutritious. But steaming the vegetable boosts the antioxidants even more. Steamed artichokes give you almost three times more antioxidant protection than boiled artichokes."

Steaming an artichoke is simple. Slice about 3/4 inch off the top of the artichoke to reveal the more tender leaves in the center. Pull off smaller leaves at the base of the stem, and cut the stem so only about 1 inch remains. Fill a large pot with several inches of water (or for more flavor, add a garlic clove and bay leaf, or use vegetable broth). When the liquid comes to a boil, insert a steaming basket and add the artichokes, with the stem facing down. Steam for 30-45 minutes or until the middle leaves easily pull off the stem. You can then enjoy one leaf at a time, dipped in garlic butter or an aioli sauce.

However, like I said, that's the most basic way to enjoy this superfood. There is so much more potential though! Take a look at the recipes below and get inspired for how you can add artichokes to more meals during the week.

artichoke salad

Rustic Tricolor Salad of Butter Leaf, Roasted Red Peppers and Artichoke Hearts

Let's start with a salad. But not just any salad. This colorful meal has a great variety of texture and flavor, from crunchy toasted almond slivers to sweet roasted red peppers. Quite a few of the ingredients boast extra special health benefits, and you can ramp up how many nutrients you pack into the salad by changing up your choice of lettuce to go for dark greens such as kale or arugula, rather than lighter butter leaf lettuce.

Artichoke and Capers Salad

This antipasto salad can be served hot or cold, so it is perfect for everything from fancy Italian dinners to low-key weekend picnics. The bright flavors get an extra boost from the basil vinaigrette drizzled over the top.

Rigatoni with Artichokes and Bacon

For a hearty comfort-food meal, try this pasta dish that features artichokes stewed in white wine and a topping of crispy pancetta. It's easy to make this a vegetarian dish.

Artichoke, Kale and Ricotta Pie

A meal that is great for breakfast, brunch or dinner is this simple fritatta-style "pie" that features not one but two superfoods. Kale adds loads of nutrients to this simple five-ingredient dish. There is also plenty of room to experiment and add other ingredients such as sun-dried tomatoes, roasted red peppers, mushroom, olives or just about anything else you might want to toss in to personalize it.

roasted artichokes

Photo: Iryna Denysova/Shutterstock

Roasted Artichokes

Getting back to basics, here is a staple for winter and spring appetizers and side dishes. You just can't go wrong with this savory snack. The tangy dip is the perfect compliment to the mild, buttery flavor of the tender roasted leaves.

Artichokes with Garlic Butter and Parsley Dip

Another option is to pair steamed artichokes with this flavorful, four-ingredient dip. It's about as simple as possible!  

Braised Artichokes with Wild Leeks

This recipe is a great reminder that you don't have to stick to exactly what a recipe says to be able to pull off an amazingly delicious meal. Go with your instincts and what your sense of sight, smell and taste tell you — if you want to change something up, go for it! That said, this recipe is pretty tasty so you won't go wrong if you want to stick to it letter for letter, too. Either way you'll come away with an irresistible side dish or main dish served over couscous, rice or pasta.

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Jaymi Heimbuch ( @jaymiheimbuch ) focuses on wildlife conservation and animal news from her home base in San Francisco.

How to cook artichokes: 7 delicious recipes
Artichokes have so much more potential than you might suspect.