Almost all the artichokes you will get in the U.S. come from right here in our backyards. Our foggy cool climate is ideal for their cultivation, that's why roughly 99% of the U.S. crop comes from California. Italy is the world's top producer followed by Egypt, Spain, and Peru.
Native to the Mediterranean, artichokes, which are part of the sunflower family, are actually a domesticated variety of the wild cardoon. The Romans are responsible for cultivating them as an edible plant but artichokes didn't gain popularity until the 16th century where they started to be found in royal gardens in France. In the 19th century, French immigrants brought artichokes over first to Louisiana, then later Spanish immigrants brought them to the mid-coastal region of California. Just northeast of Monterey, Castroville is one of the largest producers of artichokes in Cali and has even been nicknamed "The Artichoke Capital of the World".
I know artichokes can seem like a lot of work and a bit intimidating for most but they are totally worth it. Of all veggies, artichokes are the richest in antioxidants. One medium artichoke contains more fiber than one cup of prunes, which is amazing to me. They are also very high in vitamins K and C, support important minerals such as phosphorus, magnesium, iron, potassium, and are very low in fat. If that is not enough for you they are also known to help out with the prevention of certain types of heart disease, birth defects, and cancer.
Artichokes are typically cooked whole but parts only of this thistle are edible. The darker colored leaves on the outside of the bulb are very fibrous and not usually meant to be eaten, but there is a tiny bit of soft flesh that is edible at the base of each leaf so don't toss any away until you have checked for some meat (easiest to just pull the meat off with your teeth once cooked). As you peel away the outer leaves you will find that the leaves will start becoming softer the closer you get to the center, where what is called "the choke" is. The choke is a cluster of tiny woven fibers that are nonedible. Once past that you are finally at the most prized part, the heart, the meatiest part of the artichoke, and is what you find at the supermarket in jars with some marinade, brine, or oil.
The most common types of cooking methods are boiling or steaming. Both ways will get the job done just fine but I always prefer to steam, it's a bit more delicate cooking technique and keeps the artichokes more tender. First cut and trim off the top of the artichoke with a knife and expose the inside of the vegetable, roughly 1/2 - 1" depending on the size. Then trim off any of the prickly thorns from the outer leaves. Try to keep the stem, it's edible as well, you may just need to peel away some of the outer fibrous layers of skin. Once you cook and peel away, remove the inedible fuzzy price on the top with a spoon.
You can either eat the heart right away or you can cool it and save it for a salad, sandwich, pasta, bread, eggs, dips, pizzas, and the list goes on and on.
Pro Tip: After cleaning up the raw artichoke heart, if you do not plan on using it immediately store it in water with fresh lemon juice. This will keep the artichoke heart from oxidizing.