Cardoons

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Being an avid Wintertime consumer of seed catalogs, I knew about cardoons. I always wanted to try my hand at growing cardoons. Cardoons are in the thistle family, a close relative of artichokes. You eat the stalks instead of the unopened flower head (artichoke).

I have grown artichokes a few times with mixed success. In our zone (USDA Zone 7), it is best to treat them as an annual. As a result, you don’t typically get a big harvest. My hope with the cardoons was that they would be a bit hardier than artichokes, and given that the stalks have all summer to grow, I would get a reasonable harvest.

Springtime in northern Virginia means at least one trip to my favorite herb grower, DeBaggio’s Herb Farm and Nursery. Tom DeBaggio was a treasure to lovers of culinary herbs. He started his operation in urban downtown Arlington, VA. The greenhouses filled his backyard and driveway. In Spring, folks came from all around and jammed the street to buy herb plants from The Master. Tom knew everything about herbs, developing a few varieties of rosemary that you likely see in the nurseries near you. Today, the operation has moved west and is run by Tom’s son, keeping the family business thriving. I knew they would have cardoon plants, and they did.

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The plants need plenty of room to grow, eventually reaching a height and width of about four feet. They are tricky since they are covered with tiny thorns, being a thistle relative, of course. I just kept the soil around them fed with compost and cultivated with  hoe. The cardoons were a major curiosity in the garden, attracting frequent “what is that?” reactions, followed by increased puzzlement when I explained what they were. Others, who knew of cardoons, got pretty excited. Some said it was their favorite vegetable.

In September, I wrapped the bottom 18″ or so of each plant with a sheet of cardboard secured with baling twine. This would keep the light off the stalks and blanch them to reduce the bitterness of chlorophyll. After a month, I removed the cardboard and cut the plants at the soil line. After the frost, I will mulch heavily to try and winter over the plants. Wish me luck!

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Now the tricky part. These buggers are kind of a pain to clean. My first attempt was not aggressive enough, so a lot of stringy fiber was left. The taste was ok, but the strings were no bueno. Fortunately, I had four giant heads of cardoon to work with.

The next time, I got the knack of it. First, prepare a container with a gallon of cool water and juice of a lemon. Toss in the lemon rind. The cardoons will darken unless they are acidified, just like artichokes. When properly prepared, the cardoons are like the delicious creamy bites at the heart of an artichoke.

Clean the head of cardoon in the sink. A lot of pillbugs, earwigs, and hellgrammites were living in between the stalks. I set them free. Next, cut off the root end of the bunch and separate the stalks. Dip any cut ends in the lemon water.Doing this got enough lemon water on my cutting board to keep the working stalk from browning during the next steps.

Trim each stalk to get clean ends. Slice a thin strip off the side of each stalk to remove the thorny part. Use a paring knife to peel off the stringy skin of the convex side of the stalk. When cleaned, it will look succulent and pale green. You want to take off maybe 1-2mm from the surface. Err on the side of taking too much. Next lay the stalk on the cutting board concave side up. Press it down to flatten as much as possible and scrape the inside of the stalk with the paring knife. There is a thin skin in there. Sometimes you can get an edge of it and pull it away, but I found the scraping works, too. When the skin is gone, you will notice the color looks bright and clean. Slice the stalks on a bias in 1-2″ pieces. If you cleaned them right, you will not notice any fibers when you make these cuts. Toss the cut pieces into the lemon water.

Once you’ve prepped all the stalks, scoop them out of the lemon water and put into a pot of boiling salted water. Reduce the heat to a simmer and simmer until tender. This takes at least an hour. I test with a fork, and then later, remove a sample and taste it to make sure it’s ready.

It’s quite a bit of work to get to this point. Is it worth it? I kept wondering this while I painstakingly worked on each stalk. After tasting the cardoons when properly prepared, I would say it’s a winner in spite of the prep work. They are similar to the burdock stalks that I’ve cooked “Alla Romana”.

Cardoon Gratin

This is the most common preparation I have seen, and it is very easy to make.

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1 head Cardoons prepped as described above (through the simmering step)
Béchamel sauce made with 1-1/2T butter, 1-1/2T flour, 1 cup whole milk, salt, pepper, nutmeg
1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
Pinch minced fresh thyme
Salt and pepper

Oil a gratin dish with bacon fat or butter. Spread the cardoons in the dish in an even layer. Cover with the Béchamel sauce, making sure to coat each piece of cardoon. Top with the cheese and thyme. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake 350F for 30 minutes until the cheese is browned and the sauce is bubbly.

Cardoon Sformato

A sformato is similar to a soufflé. It can be made in a larger soufflé dish or a cake pan, but I made it in ramekins.

1 head Cardoons prepped as described above (through the simmering step)
1/2 small onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2T olive oil
Salt and pepper
Béchamel sauce made with 1-1/2T butter, 1-1/2T flour, 1 cup whole milk, salt, pepper, nutmeg
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 eggs
Butter for ramekins
Bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 400F.

Sweat the onions and garlic in a skillet with the olive oil. Season to taste. When soft, add the drained cardoons and cook until the liquid evaporates and they just begin to brown on the edges.

Place 2 eggs, the slightly cooled Béchamel sauce, and 3/4 cup of cheese in a bowl. Add the sauteed onion, garlic, cardoon mixture. Mix. Either puree in blender or use stick blender to puree to a smooth consistency.

Butter six 6-ounce ramekins. Place 2t bread crumbs in each ramekin. Cover the top of the ramekin with your hand and roll the ramekin around to evenly distribute the bread crumbs. Fill each ramekin to just below the rim.

Place the ramekins on a baking sheet and bake at 400F for 30 minutes. The sformato will puff up considerably, but will then subside a bit when removed from the oven.

You can serve these in the ramekin, or turn out onto a plate. Top with the reserved cheese. I surrounded it with some home cured charcuterie, which is a great pairing.

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I’m really glad I decided to give cardoons a try. I’m already thinking of other things to do with them. Next up, I plan to use them in lieu of asparagus in my asparagus gougère. I really hope they survive the winter here.

 

 

 

2 thoughts

  1. These sound delicious, thanks for sharing! I’m not much of a gardener (maybe when I retire?) so will search the many farmer’s markets in SoCal area for these.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! You should be able to find cardoons there. They would grow like weeds in the areas where artichokes are grown.

      Like

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