Cardoons. An giant thistle related to artichokes Darwin classified as a pest species. Every since I read about these in a book by Lorenza de Medici I wanted to eat them. It took until I was on the email list of a kooky Eastern European farmer that I got my chance to cook some.
I tried to dig up a copy of the original email from the farmer, but no dice. Basically, he wrote a couple pages comparing his excitement working with crops to a drug addict’s high and saying that a man he knew from Geneva Switzerland has sent him home with seeds. The last paragraph ended by saying: “Behold, Cardoon!”-followed by a painting he had made of the plant (he’s also an accomplished painter). We ordered some from him.
When they showed up they were just like I imagined, giant stalks of celery, there was a catch. The stalks are covered in long spines (remember it’s a thistle), as well as painful barbed hairs, called glochids or trichomes, which are about the same as you’ll find on a cactus.
The glochids are pretty nasty since you won’t notice them until they’re dug in deep, hours later. I remember waking up at night after cleaning cardoons, hands covered in bloody pin pricks, splotches here and there on my sheets. Next time I cleaned them, I used a towel to hold them while I trimmed with my paring knife.
Speaking of cleaning them, I made a video for you, since it’s easier to understand with a visual example.
So why would you want to cook a plant that is covered in nasty spines? Because cooking them is a lost art, and an interesting process. Oh, and they taste like artichokes, but with a much higher yield, really useful if you want to sell dishes including them to guests.
What can you do with them?
Lots of things, and I’m not going to go into all of them here. Here’s one technique and a sample recipe of what you can make with the finished preserves, an example of how I might use them in a kitchen.I do with them in restaurant scenarios. Without sharing complete recipes, after trimming the cardoons, here are some things guests and myself have enjoyed over the years, and a few other ideas:
- Braised with tomato until tender and tossed with pasta, chili and olive oil (see above, make homer simpson noise)
- One Italian classic is braising them in 3 inch or so pieces, then breading and frying, with some sort of dipping sauce, like a spicy tomato
- At one restaurant, I served an alfredo style pasta with a cardoon infused cream, butter and parmigiano. The flavor transfers to cream very well, ending up tasting like artichoke alfredo.
- Confit, covered with oil, garlic and herbs and cooked very slow until tender
- Added to slow cooked meat braises, especially lamb
- Havent tried it, but my friend Hank’s cardoon risotto looks great
Cardoons a la Greque
- Tall stainless steel pot (don't use aluminum)
- 1 cardoon about 2 lbs
- 3 large cloves garlic sliced
- 1 cup flavorless oil
- 3 cups dry white wine
- 2 teaspoons sea salt or kosher salt
- Bouquet garni of 2 fresh bay leaves and a small handful of fresh thyme wrapped in cheesecloth and tied together
- 3 cups water
- Water seasoned to taste with lemon juice as needed for holding the cardoons
- Peel the cardoon stalks of their spines and thorns on the side of each stalk using a paring knife, then gently remove the tough outer portion of the stalk, as you would peel celery. Cut the cardoons into ½ inch pieces and place them in the lemon water to prevent browning.
- In a large, wide pan, heat the garlic on medium heat until lightly browned and aromatic, then add the cardoons, salt, wine, water, and herbs. Cover and cook for anywhere for 30 min to an hour, or until the cardoons are just tender. Transfer the cardoons to a labeled container, cover with their cooking liquid and weight down with a plate to hold them under the liquid and preserve them. Under their liquid the cardoons will keep for a couple weeks, they can also be frozen.
- To serve the cardoons, reheat them with a bit of their juice and use as you would artichokes.
As a garnish for fish
See a recipe using the preserved cardoons with monkfish in this post here.