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Taste That’s Worth the Trouble
By Pat Eby
Posted On: 10/01/2010   


Tall, rangy and greenly gray, cardoon is one homely thistle. Its cousin, the artichoke, got the good looks in the family, but cardoon’s elegant taste makes up for its gangly appearance. Imagine the sweetness of artichoke heart crossed with the slightly bitter aftertaste of good celery. The texture runs smooth and meaty, but the way to bliss is anything but easy with cardoons.

First off, you need to order cardoons from the produce manager at your local store. Most stores will bring in special vegetable orders with a week’s notice. If you don’t know the produce manager, buying cardoons is a great excuse to meet him or her.

I haven’t found any local farmers growing cardoons, but produce maven Ken Whiteman of Ladue Market has fielded questions from growers seeking to gauge the demand for this relatively unknown vegetable. Unknown in the United States, that is; the French and Italians have consumed cardoons, also called cardoni or carduni, for centuries. “Right now, there’s not much call for cardoons because people don’t know what to do with it,” Whiteman said.

The stalks bake rich and yummy in gratins, purée to velvet in creamy soups and fry to perfection in butter. Cardoon seemed like the perfect fall and holiday vegetable to brighten taste buds. But special-ordering the ungainly looking stalks is just the first step in a long process to prepare them.

Be careful when handling your cardoons, as prickly spikes along the edges can lodge under the skin – and they hurt. You’ve got to be wondering if cardoons are worth pursuing at this point, but the taste is worth the trouble; keep going. Plus, cooking should be an adventure, a journey, and with cardoon, it’s the grand tour.

To keep cardoons from oxidizing during the preparation, have lemon juice or a cool water bath acidulated with lemon juice at hand. Most stalks from the grocery are trimmed of top leaves, but scraggly thin arms with leaves usually hang around the top five or six inches of a stalk. Trim the stragglers with sharp kitchen shears, then trim the top and bottom before proceeding to the next step: removing the spines.

Work from top to bottom with a sharp paring knife to pull the spines, working each outer edge until they are removed. When you’ve finished the part that can hurt you, start on the strings, working again from the top down to remove any coarse strings.

Next, turn to the smooth concave side and pull off the very thin outer membrane. Cut the stalks into 3-inch pieces and place in the acidulated water or squeeze lemon juice on them. As you trim them, more strings may come off. That’s OK.

But wait. There’s more. Bring a large pot of water with the juice of a lemon and a pinch of salt to a full boil. Toss in the cardoon pieces and reduce the heat to medium-high. Cook uncovered for 15 to 30 minutes. The pieces should be near to tender but not limp. While the cardoon simmers, prepare an ice bath to shock the pieces after they are drained. The color brightens to a prettier green in the process, too.

The first time I cooked cardoons, I stopped after the prep work and refrigerated the pieces overnight. The process wore me out. The second prep was much easier.

In addition to the traditional gratins, buttery cardoons breaded and fried, and creamy soup, I tried less-calorie-laden dishes. An Italian meatball soup and cardoon cornmeal pancakes made a change-up lunch for a cool day. A tapenade of cardoons, caramelized shallots and roasted red peppers went well with toasted artisan flatbreads from the Bosnian bakery. Cardoons are high in sodium, so taste before you salt.

Julienned cooked cardoons, celery sliced paper-thin on the diagonal and fresh ribbon-cut spinach tossed with a commercial Parmesan Italian vinaigrette made a pretty slaw.

So ask your grocer to order some cardoons. If enough folks like it and buy it, maybe we’ll have locally grown available at the markets a few years hence.


Cardoon Tapenade
Makes 2¼ cups

INGREDIENTS

2 stalks cardoon
2 shallots
1 Tbsp. unsalted butter
½ tsp. granulated sugar
½ tsp. balsamic vinegar
½ cup coarsely grated Pecorino-Romano cheese
½ cup coarsely chopped blanched almonds
Lemon olive oil
¼ cup diced roasted red peppers
Sea salt and cracked black pepper to taste

PREPARATION

• Peel, trim and cook the cardoons until they are nearly tender, then plunge them into an ice water bath.
• Julienne the cardoons, then chop them into 3∕4-inch lengths and place in a small mixing bowl.
• Peel and julienne the shallots. Melt the butter over medium-low heat until it bubbles. Do not brown.
• Toss the shallots with the sugar and add them to the pan. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring three or four times over 10 minutes or until the shallots turn brown and caramelize.
• Remove from the heat and add the balsamic vinegar. Stir and set aside.
• Combine the cardoons, shallots, Pecorino and almonds. Add enough olive oil to coat and blend the mixture. Gently stir in the red peppers, adding more oil if needed.
• Let stand for 10 minutes. Season with pepper. Taste, then add salt if needed.
• Serve on bread, flatbread or crackers.

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