carciofi salentini: salentine artichokes

by Silvestro on February 16, 2012

If you take the train from Roma to Lecce, just about everything you see the second half of the trip will be the gray-green shaggy plants that flash on the  other side of the train window. Field after field after field. For hours. And in fact, here in the Salento come late January each year, we find artichokes everywhere: the markets, sold in intersections from the backs of trucks, but no where more so that at the table, already prepared.

If you don’t know how to do that, well, here’s how:

Artichokes rust very quickly, so pour yourself a pot of tea or open  a bottle of wine and then toss a few cut lemons into your largest bowl of water.


From the point, you cut the artichoke about half way up, right in half. Then you start to peel away all the course leaves. Once you arrive at the softer leaves, you can clean it up with a knife, rounding any rough edges. Then you place that in the lemon water. They actual technique is easy. It’s staying entertained that’s the trick.

A good gossipy friend is the best, but if she has to work, consider Italian radio and ‘French Breakfast tea’ your companions.

Avoid artichokes as dinner party food, which means that you the cook will be peeling for the better part of the morning. Your fingers will turn black too and stay that way for a few days.

Like most vegetables in Italy, these are going to be cooked well-done, which will give us a little bit of room should we leave too much fibery leaves.

You can add water to steam them but everyone I know just splashes some from the big bowl of water. Place in big pot, add a glug of oil and a little pennyroyal after ten minutes or so. You can use any mint (menta) but pennyroyal (mentuccia) is one of those flavours very much appreciated inside of Italy, virtually unknown, outside.

Once they are soft (today’s took about 15 minute but time of harvest and time after harvest both are factors in figuring cooking time) toss with some raw oil and more pennyroyal. If you’re anything like me, you’ll leave a mess out in the garden for a few days. And you might even live on these for a few days, putting the copper pot right into the refrigerator.

I try to remind myself on mornings like these that not all the best dishes have ‘elbow grease’ on the list of ingredients. That some dishes are good AND simple, good AND fast.

Today though as I trimmed, it occurred to me that ‘appreciation’ and ‘anticipation’ are also ingredients in the recipe, as real as oil or salt.

And that you don’t plant field after field after field of them unless you have a favourite knife. And a favourite big bowl. And a little time to make a meal. Like all of us, I like to think that my little part of the world is special. And that food preparation here is not considered time-wasted.

And that’s what artichokes mean to me, a dish with reflection built right in. And that’s usually what goes through my mind, as the gray-green shaggy leaves flash by on the other side of the window, the train continuing on down the track, headed for someplace very special.


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