On a busy winter day, I was speeding down the vegetable aisle at my local supermarket when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted something completely unexpected: cardoons. My cart came to a screeching halt and I turned my head so fast I almost gave myself whiplash!
To my disbelief, I was indeed looking at cardoons, neatly stacked next to the leeks. How could that be? My local supermarket is hardly a gourmet store and yet — there they were. I quickly grabbed two bunches and happily trotted home.
Perhaps you’ll think, How can anyone get excited about a cardoon? I’ll confess that I was not just excited about this find, I was elated! The last time I’d seen cardoons in their plant form (as opposed to on my plate at one of Mario Batali’s restaurants) was a few years ago in Venice, piled high in a crate on the deck of a vegetable vendor’s boat. I remember letting out a sigh, wishing I could find such exotic veggies back home.
What are cardoons?
You might be wondering, What on earth is a cardoon, anyway? A thistle-like plant, cardoons (also called cardone) grow abundantly in the Mediterranean and are usually in season from November to March. A close relative to the globe artichoke, the cardoon looks a bit like celery on steroids, growing as tall as six feet. It has thorny, silver-grey leaves and pompom-like purple blossoms. It’s not exactly a friendly-looking vegetable and it probably won’t make you salivate at first sight.
Unless, of course, you know what a treasure for the palate lies underneath that protective garb…
How do you clean and cook cardoons
Just like with its cousin the artichoke, a little bit of work is needed to get the succulent part of this plant on your plate. But unlike artichokes, it’s not the blossoms we’re after, but the stalks. Their delicate artichoke-like flavor is as refined as it is addictive.
Once you’ve trimmed and peeled the stalks, it’s wise to blanch them in order to remove their sometimes considerable bitterness (see the step-by-step instructions and pictures below). I also find that adding a little lemon juice along with the salt to the blanching water brightens up the cardoons’ delicate flavor.
Cardoons lend themselves to many wonderful dishes: gratins, bagna cauda (a traditional Piedmont dish of barely blanched cardoon stalks served with a garlicky dipping sauce), fritters, stews (gently braised on their own or with other vegetables) and soups (like this cardoon velouté with black truffle carpaccio). Whichever recipe you decide to explore, I know you’ll discover something precious, even a bit mysterious, in this magical plant.
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Prepping & blanching cardoons
2 1/2 lbs (1.1 kg) blanched cardoons
juice of 2 lemons
3 lbs (1.4 kg) cardoon stalks
1 tablespoon sea salt for blanching
- Fill a large bowl with cold water and add half the lemon juice. Set aside. Trim both ends of cardoon stalks and all leaves. Using a paring knife, shave the edges off each stalk (they have little spikes on them), and peel off the large protruding ribs (as you would a celery stalk). Cut each stalk crosswise in 1” pieces and immediately place in the lemon water bath.
- To blanch the cardoons – Fill a large bowl with cold water and several ice cubes. Set aside. Fill a large heavy-bottomed pot with water and bring to a boil. Add the balance of lemon juice and salt. Drain the cardoon pieces and add them to the boiling water. Boil for 15 to 20 minutes until just tender, but still a bit firm. Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and transfer to the ice water bath until cool. Drain on a kitchen towel or paper towel. Once dry, transfer to a bowl and use in your recipe of choice, or place in a sealed container and refrigerate for up to 2 days.
How to prepare cardoons, step-by-step
Fill a large bowl with cold water and add half the lemon juice.
Trim both ends of cardoon stalks.
Using a paring knife, shave the edges of each stalk, making sure to remove those tiny spikes; and peel off the large protruding ribs (as you would a celery stalk).
Watch out for the tiny spikes along each stalk — they are very prickly!
Cut each stalk crosswise in 1” pieces…
… and immediately place in the lemon water bath.
Fill a large heavy-bottom pot with water and bring to a boil. Add the balance of lemon juice and salt.
Drain the cardoon pieces and add them to the boiling water. Boil for 15 to 20 minutes until just tender, but still a bit firm.
Scoop them out with a slotted spoon and transfer to the ice water bath until cool.
Drain on kitchen towel or paper towel.