Artichokes were almost certainly brought to Puglia by the Turks, and the first documented mention of their presence in the area relates to Otranto in the 1700s though it is possible they were cultivated much earlier; certainly they were grown in Sicily from the 10th century onwards. Nowadays Southern Italy produces almost 50% of the world’s artichokes, and a large proportion of those are grown in Puglia.
As I write, the local market has stalls just selling artichokes, the vegetable vans are driving round the streets calling out ‘carciofi, carciofi’ and I came home yesterday with armfuls of freshly cut artichokes – at less than 20 cents an artichoke! No sooner had I got home than my neighbour rang on the bell and proudly presented me with another armful, just harvested from his ‘campagna’!
With such bounty it is easy to be extravagant and I cooked a delicious ‘parmigiana’ with artichokes instead of aubergines which called for twenty artichokes (using only the innermost leaves and hearts) for 4-6 people. Although I am happy to give the recipe to anyone who would like it, I am aware that, outside Puglia it is a less than practical dish! Other, more practical, but equally delicious, dishes include a kind of ‘frittata’ or Spanish omlette (reflecting the Spanish occupation of the area) where the artichokes are combined with mint, or a dish with rice and potatoes cooked in the oven – again happy to post recipes if anyone wants them. In the end though I decided to include this recipe, not least because it requires the least preparation (and is truly delicious). As artichokes are a winter crop it also includes store cupboard items such as sun dried tomatoes, capers and anchovies (optional).
Stuffed baked artichokes (serves 2-4 people)
2 artichokes with stalks
4 large slices coarse textured white bread– you could substitute wholemeal if desired
1 large or two small cloves of garlic
4 sundried tomatoes, ideally preserved in oil (if not soak in a little warm oil first till softened)
1 tablespoon of capers
1-2 anchovy fillets if you like them
Dried peperoncino or chile pepper – a whole one sliced or a teaspoon of flakes
Bear in mind that cut artichokes discolour rapidly on contact with the air and can also stain your hands, so do wear gloves and rub the cut surfaces of the artichokes with lemon.
Remove and peel the artichoke stalks – the top 3-4 inches below the head, cut into half inch chunks
Place these in a pan of lightly salted water to which you have added half a lemon (un peeled)
Remove the tough outermost leaves then cut the artichokes in half lengthwise and remove the chokes
Add to the pan with the stalks and cook for around 10 minutes until the stalks are cooked but still firm. Fish out the artichokes, stalks and lemon retaining the liquid in the pan.
While the artichokes are cooling place two of the slices of bread in a dish and cover with some of the liquid.
Reduce a further slice of bread into breadcrumbs in a food processor and set aside – you will sprinkle this on top of the stuffed artichokes.
Chop the garlic, parsley and sundried tomatoes and place in the food processor along with the drained capers, the peperoncino and the soaked bread (squeeze out all of the liquid first).
Remove some of the centre leaves of the artichoke to make a bigger cavity for the stuffing – add these to the other ingredients in the food processor. The resulting mixture should be fairly moist but not wet and runny – if necessary add a drizzle of oil and/or the liquid to moisten, or conversely, soak and squeeze out the reserved slice of bread and add some of that .
Place the artichoke halves in a baking tray, fill with the mixture, pressing down firmly and sprinkle some breadcrumbs on top. Drizzle with a little oil. Carefully pour a little of the liquid around the artichokes, just enough to cover the base of the tin without wetting the filling.
Place in a preheated oven at 180 (160 if fan assisted) for around 25-30 minutes or until the topping is golden brown
For market visists, cookery lessons and all things Pugliese for foodies see www.personalpuglia.com