In Season: Cardoon makes delicious side dishes
The centerpiece of Doug Gosling’s fabulous organic garden at the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center in Occidental was once an eye-popping cardoon. It was a stunner, as tall as a person and resembling an artichoke ready to take over the world.
This wild Mediterranean thistle is the ancestor of our modern artichoke, but unlike the artichoke, which is grown for its flower buds, the cardoon produces wide, thick, flat leaf stalks that ancient Greeks considered a delicacy. When they appear in our markets during the run-up to the holidays, they’re usually in areas that supply ingredients for the cuisines of the southern European and Mediterranean countries such as Portugal, France, Italy and Morocco.
In Northern California, with our Mediterranean climate, they grow well in the same coastal regions where artichokes thrive. They’ve also escaped cultivation and sow themselves thither and yon, so keep an eye out for them as you drive our byways.
Properly prepared, the cardoon has a subtle but delightful flavor that’s mild and delicious — a little bit artichoke heart, a little bit celery, a hint of anise and something of salsify.
Superficially, the stalks resemble toothed celery stalks, but they are wider, thicker, longer, flatter and a dull silver-gray instead of green. These fleshy stalks take about 25 to 30 minutes to cook in a change of water. Parboil them for 15 minutes, remove the tough strings that run their length, change the water and finish them with another 10 minutes or so of boiling over medium heat. When they’re tender, they can be used in many ways in combination with their taste-mates: butter, lemon, garlic, hard Italian grating cheese and vinegar.
Some cooks sauté them in butter and garlic, others in bacon and flour to which cream is added. Others braise them, use them in stews and soups or batter and fry them in olive oil. The French do them in a cheesy Mornay sauce.
Intense sauces like the creamy garlic-and-anchovy bagno cauda dip that Italians use to brighten strips of young, raw cardoon can easily overwhelm their delicate flavor, even if it does echo the ancient Roman style of eating cardoon as a salad with garum (fermented fish sauce.) Besides, markets seldom offer cardoon picked young and tender enough for raw use.
Beside the leaf stalks, cardoon root is edible and can be prepared like any root crop. Roasted to tenderness, the root has an ineffable bittersweet flavor.
If you do find cardoon at the market, look for stalks that are small to medium, rather than extra wide and large. The smaller, the more tender they are. Check out the cut ends. As with artichokes, they’ll be discolored (cut ends turn blackish-brown fairly quickly) but that’s OK. What’s not OK is if the thick meat is hollow inside, which means they’re old and tough. When you get them home, remove all leaves and spines, slice the ends to refresh them and immediately place them in water acidulated with lemon juice until you’re ready to cook them.
The Spanish love their cardoons, as do the Moroccans, French and Italians. This is one popular way they cook them in Madrid.
Cardoons Spanish Style
Makes 6 servings
6 cardoon stalks
1 lemon, halved
3 small onions, finely diced
3 tablespoons olive oil