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Don't let its thorny exterior intimidate you. The humble artichoke offers a bounty of flavor and nutrition -- especially in our artichoke spinach gratin!

According to legend, the artichoke was created when the smitten Greek god Zeus turned his object of affection into a thistle after being rejected. Despite this prickly beginning, the ancients considered the artichoke full of health benefits, using it as an aphrodisiac, a diuretic, a breath freshener, and even a deodorant.

The artichokes we eat are actually the buds of a purple flower that can grow more than 3 feet tall. Because of their tough exterior, artichokes take some careful preparation. But your efforts will reap nutritional rewards -- the veggie is a good source of folate, dietary fiber, and vitamins C and K. Artichokes are also packed with antioxidants; they're number 7 on the USDA's top 20 antioxidant-rich foods list.

Not to be confused with the Jerusalem artichoke or the Chinese artichoke (neither has any relation to the common globe artichoke), the vegetable is native to the Mediterranean. But Castroville, Calif., where three-quarters of all the artichokes grown in the state are harvested, proclaims itself the "Artichoke Center of the World." Eat the tender ends of the leaves after boiling or steaming -- though the best part is the flavorful heart.

And the next time you're looking for something delicious and nutritious to please a hungry crowd, try this artichoke spinach gratin recipe.

Artichoke Spinach Gratin

Makes 8 servings

1 medium red pepper, chopped

1 medium onion chopped

1 teaspoon olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

2 10-oz boxes frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and drained

8 oz low-fat cream cheese, softened

8 oz fat-free sour cream

2 14-oz cans artichoke hearts in water, drained, rinsed, sliced into quarters

1/3 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes (dry, not packed in oil)

1/4 cup Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup bread crumbs

1 teaspoon paprika

salt and pepper to taste

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

2. Sauté red pepper and onion in olive oil 5 minutes; add garlic and continue cooking 2 to 3 minutes.

3. Add spinach, cream cheese, and sour cream. Combine and heat until blended.

4. Stir in artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes.

5. Pour into lightly sprayed 9x9-inch pan or 1-quart gratin dish.

6. Combine cheese, bread crumbs, and paprika. Sprinkle evenly over spinach.

7. Bake 30-40 minutes or until golden.

Per serving: 185 calories, 10 g protein, 23 g carbohydrate, 7 g fat (4 g saturated fat), 21 mg cholesterol, 5 g fiber, 402 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 34%.

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