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Cardoon: A Vegetable with Built-In Armor

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Every week we get Down & Dirty, in which we break down our favorite unique seasonal fruits, vegetables, and more.

Cardoons look like prehistoric celery (although the two aren't really related), taste like artichoke hearts, and take a bit of work to prep -- but once you do, you can work them into meals, all week long.

If you're unfamiliar with cardoons, you probably know one of their cousins. They belong to the expansive sunflower family (along with Jerusalem artichokes and dandelions), and are very closely related to artichokes -- the two look and taste very similar. The chief difference? Artichokes are grown for their flower buds, while cardoons are grown for their leaf petioles (what we think of as stems or stalks), and they can get intense. They have small spines that can be quite spiky -- so be careful when you prep! 

In addition to its built-in armor, the cardoon has a few other tricks up its sleeve (stalk?). For one, the purple stamens of the cardoon flower can be used to make vegetarian rennet for cheese, and cardoons are also used as ornamental plants. What we think of as a beautiful Italian vegetable is even considered a troublesome weed in some areas, as it can spread quickly once planted. 

What to Look For
Look for cardoons at your local farmers market, upscale grocery stores, or Italian markets. Though cardoons are often thought of as a winter vegetable, you should still be able to find them into early summer. Pick cardoons that feel firm -- they won't be as firm as celery, but avoid stalks that are soft and spongey. The stalks are often blanched (horticulturally blanched, not briefly-boiled blanched) for a few weeks before harvesting to encourage paler, less bitter stalks -- so look for lightly colored stalks and avoid any that are browning or wilting.

More: Find a farmers market near you on Real Time Farms.

How to Store and Prep
If you store your cardoons in a plastic bag in the fridge, they’ll keep for about a week. When it comes time to prep, get ready -- like artichokes, cardoons make you work to get to the good stuff. As Deborah Madison says, they are a formidable vegetable; you’ll need to do a lot of trimming (1) and peeling. (Stay tuned for the full step-by-step rundown tomorrow.) Cardoons will discolor when exposed to the air, so most preparations call for placing the cut pieces into an acidulated water bath (2). (Although if you're looking to cut out a step, skip the water bath -- Elizabeth Schneider finds that the color evens out after cooking.)

How to Use
In Europe, cardoons are served raw as a classic vegetable dipper for bagna cauda, but unless you get lucky, the cardoons you find here will probably be too bitter to eat raw. Many recipes even call for parboiling the cardoons to remove some of their bitterness. Try them simmered in broth, fried, or added to a stew. Or use them in a risotto, gratin, or a tagine. Let us know how you like to use cardoons, and then try new recipes all week long:

Thursday: Cardoons with Anchovy Garlic Sauce
Friday: Crunchy Cardoons 
Saturday: Savory Cardoon Flan 
Sunday: Cardoon Soup with Black Truffle Carpaccio
Monday: Ramp-ed up Cardoons 
Tuesday: Honeyed Cardoons with Pine Nuts and Thyme 
Wednesday: Cardoon Gratin  

Photos by James Ransom

Tags: Sustainability, Ingredients, Down and Dirty, Diagrams