Cardoons have won numerous 'disdained vegetable' championships. In posh foodie blogs and specialized magazines, the humble cardoon never gets mentioned. I read rhapsodies about the parsnip, odes to the beauty and versatility of the pomegranate, carousels around kale. Hardly ever cardoon tangents.
Ironic how my mother has over the years tried unsuccessfully feeding me gobbi (cardoons) ever since I can remember. Now that I’ve become a thistle-fetishist, her cocky smile burns like a branding iron on my ample buttocks.
The cardoon looks like a very strange celery stalk, but with longer, dustier and thicker ribs. The cardoon bunches that are available here in Italy are about 24" to 36" long. Cardi have a reputation for being difficult suckers to tackle, but once you figure out how to trim and cook them to tame their bitterness, it’s all good. The cardoon is related to the globe artichoke, and it has a similar flavor, as well as the capacity to turn your hands black, just like when handling raw artichokes.
The first step to properly domesticating cardoons is in how to clean them. This is done by stripping off the strings or filament ribs. It’s not too time consuming, start at one end or the other, and give it an energetic zip. Once you get into it, its kind of fun.
OK, I get my kicks in strange ways (I like to shuck corn ears, too).
1 bunch of ripe cardoons, individual ribs trimmed
1 bowl of cold water with the juice of 1 lemon
Parmigiano, grated (lots)
Freshly milled black pepper
Working quickly, chop the stripped cardoon ribs into 2–inch chunks, and place them in acidulated water, just as you would with an artichoke (acidulated as in, soured by the acidity of lemon juice or vinegar, I love how you sound so haute cuisine-educated when you say acidulated).
Drop the cardoon chunks into boiling salted water until the pieces are soft. Now, in Italy, that takes about 10-15 minutes; I have friends in California who say that this takes them 45 minutes. Apparently there are quite a few different cultivars of thistle cardoons; what we get here is white or silvery, curved and not too fibrous.
When they are soft, drain the cardoons. Add little specks of butter, season with freshly ground black pepper and sprinkle with generous amounts of grated Parmigiano. Bake your cardi in the oven on a greased oven pan for a few minutes to melt the cheese and form a delish, golden crust.
Cardoons deserve more popularity. Just think how many ways in which you can prepare them besides the typical above-mentioned Umbrian recipe. You can: a) dip them in batter and fry them; or b) further roast the fried chunks with slabs of Fontina, the cheese melts into the batter and scoffing them is a gooey, delicious mess. You can: c) add them to soups; d) make risotto; or e) dip them in bagna càuda (which is a winter delicacy I will post about in the colder future); just let your imagination run cardoon-wild.
Trivia Note: Cardonnacum, derived from carduus, is Latin for a place thick with thistles. This is believed to be the origin for the name of the Burgundy village of Chardonnay Saône-et-Loire, which in turn is thought to be the home of the famous Chardonnay grape variety.
So please, next autumn, when you go to your farmer's market, stubbornly ask for cardoons and pray for a comeback.