I first saw cardoons at the fantastic sunday veg market in Sant’Isidoro, a seaside fraction of Nardò, where I currently live. An entire stall was devoted to them and when I asked the stall holder what they were he said ‘cardeci’ (local name) and when I looked blank he clarified ‘cardi’ and I guessed cardoons. That cardoons are plentiful in Puglia I knew – the cardoncelli mushrooms which are a local delicacy, grow on the cardoon root, but I had no idea what to do with them. One of my local greengrocers had a fantastic looking display of them just before Christmas so I decided to take the plunge.
I realise that many readers may not have access to cardoons, unless they are in Puglia but, apparently, they are easy to grow and are very ornamental as they are related to both the thistle and artichoke. When I still lived in London the local organic vegetable delivery people had them on their list of products, so you never know. I would definitely have a go at planting some if I had a plot of land rather than a rather overplanted roof terrace…
It has to be said that they do need some preparation. All the leaves need to be discarded, as they are bitter (used in herbal medicine) and you only use the fleshy stems which need to have the sides trimmed to remove the prickly bits. Once this is done you need to peel off some of the bulkier ribs in the stems, which like celery are very fibrous.
As in the preparation of artichokes, it is a good idea to wear gloves as the juices can stain your hands, and to pop the trimmed stalks, cut into inch long chunks into a lemon juice and water mixture to stop them going brown. After this they need to be cooked for 10-15 minutes to remove any bitterness. At this point they are ready to prepared in any way you choose (but bear in mind they have only been blanched, not cooked through) and can also be frozen.
At this point you may be thinking ‘why bother’ and the thought did cross my mind as I was busy stripping out the larger ribs, but I am an now an absolute convert and, in the end, they are no more fiddly then artichokes. The flavour is very delicate, definitely reminiscent of artichoke with something else thrown in.
I found this locally made video which I am including as I think the woman is brilliant, and you can see the preparation, but I don’t think I will try her recipe for ‘cardi gratinati’ as it includes pecorino and a little tomato puree and I think both would detract from the cardoons. If I were going to cook them in the oven I would probably use a bechamel sauce for moisture and parmesan..
Instead I made soup. I cooked the cardoons in homemade vegetable stock (carrots, onion, celery, parsley) and then just blended with some of the cooking liquid cream. Very simple. Heavenly. I then made an equally delicious risotto. I left the cardoons in 3/4 of an inch chunks, and cooked them al dente. I then used some of the liquid they were cooked in in the risotto, along with vegetable stock and only added the cardoons at the last minute to finish cooking then added butter and parmesan cheese and mixed in after the stage of beating the risotto to release the starch and make it creamy . There probably isn’t time before the season ends to get sick of the stuff – I want to try the oven baked version next, maybe with some cubes of crispy pancetta to add salt and a bit of crunch…