Classic Cardoons for an Inventive Winter Gratin

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in: Cooking

Cardoons at farmers market. Credit: blowbackphoto / iStockphoto.com

What looks like a cross between a giant thistle and supersized celery, but tastes like artichoke with a trace of truffle? Don’t worry if you don’t have a clue. Cardoons are still a rare find in U.S. stores, although more and more farmers are growing them. If you’ve spent time in Italy or Spain, though, you probably know them as cardi or cardone — a classic winter vegetable that is perfect in a bagna cauda.

Cardoons are among the vegetables that home gardeners have enjoyed and that great painters have lovingly rendered for centuries.

The cardoon in Juan Sánchez Cotán’s bodegón (a still life, usually in a pantry or cellar), is domestic and poetic, mundane and mysterious, secular and sacred. Somehow Sánchez Cotán painted the lowly yet lovely cardoon’s sharp edges in soft colors, making it pulse with hidden life. It’s a humble, ordinary scene, yet the gathering up of the fruits of the earth before they die and return to whence they came hints of the rituals of the altar.

The artichoke’s cousin

Like artichokes, cardoons are in the thistle family. Their wild ancestor grew all over the Mediterranean and was gradually domesticated. Some, bred for their big buds, became the artichokes we know today, while others, bred for a large and meaty petiole (leaf stalk), became the cardoon.

The cardoon plant resembles its forebears, with long stalks and velvety, deeply lobed, heavily spined, gray-green leaves with a felt-like surface. The pale green stalks are about an inch wide, and 18 to 22 inches long. Some cardoon stems are straight, but in Italy the most sought after are curved, a feature that results in their being nicknamed gobbi, or hunchbacks.

My brother, Henry, plants the Gobbo di Nizza (Hunchback of Nice) cardoons, as well as the Porto Spineless variety on his farm in Illinois. Both have the look and the crunch of celery, but the flavor is absolutely nothing like celery.

Henry Brockman with cardoons

Henry Brockman with cardoons, photographed on an angle. Credit: Terra Brockman

Cardoons are not normally eaten raw, but when my brother had me go chop one down (slicing through the 6-inch base is more akin to chopping a tree than cutting a vegetable), we inhaled the earthy truffle aroma, and decided to sample it on the spot. Raw, it has an immediate bitter bite on your tongue, but as you chew it, it develops complex and pleasant flavors. By the time you swallow it, you can’t help but take another bite, and soon the bitter flavor becomes addictive.

Worth the trouble

When cardoons are cooked, their membership in the artichoke family becomes apparent. But they are better than the best artichoke hearts, in that they seem to have been dusted with rich white truffle. A quick look through my Italian cookbooks suggests a variety of cooking methods, from braising to frying to making them into a risotto or gratin.

The cookbooks also make it clear that cardoons need some prep time. Chef Jason Hammel of Chicago’s Lula Café and Nightwood Restaurant, once said, “Good food is trouble.” And I say cardoons are a case in point. But anything worthwhile requires a bit of work, right?

In the case of cardoons, you trim the spines, peel the fibers and boil them for in water with the juice of a lemon before doing anything else with them. And honestly, that’s not so much trouble. Rest assured — what comes later makes it all worthwhile.

Try substituting this cardoon gratin for that tired old potato or squash gratin at your Thanksgiving dinner. Give an extra helping to whoever can identify the vegetable.

Cardoon Gratin

Ingredients
1 large cardoon (3 to 4 pounds)
1 lemon
Salt
¼ cup flour
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup coarsely grated provolone
½ cup finely grated pecorino
Freshly ground black pepper

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 400 F. Bring a large kettle of salted water to a boil. While the oven and the water are heating, prep the cardoons.

2. Use a paring knife or your fingers (I prefer fingers) to zip off the strings on the ribs of the cardoon stalks. (Some recipes say to peel the stalks with a vegetable peeler, but that just got my peeler all gummed up. Besides, you don’t have to get all the strings out for the cardoons to come out soft and luscious.)

3. Squeeze the lemon’s juice into a large bowl of cold water. Cut the cardoon stalks into 2- to 3-inch lengths, and put them into the lemon water to keep them from discoloring.

4. Put the squeezed-out lemon pieces into the boiling water and then whisk in the flour. According to some, this lemon-flour combination removes some of the bitterness from the cardoons, and keeps their pretty green color. Let the flour and lemon boil together for few minutes, and then toss in all the cardoon sticks, and boil about 30 minutes, or until the flesh is soft and silky. Drain.

5. Liberally smear olive oil (or bacon fat) all over the inside of a casserole dish that is large enough to hold all the cardoons. Arrange the cardoons in one layer, and then sprinkle with the provolone, and then with the pecorino. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the cheese begins to brown. Serve immediately or at room temperature. This dish is even better as leftovers, reheated in the microwave or toaster oven.

Photo: Cardoons at farmers market. Credit: blowbackphoto / iStockphoto.com


Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, "The Seasons on Henry's Farm," now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.

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