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The difficult cardoon

(article, Deborah Madison)

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With their silvery-gray leaves festooning broad stalks, cardoons are impressive plants. Yes, they're edible, but you might also want to use them as cornerstones in an ornamental garden. 

Sadly, cardoons aren't commonly grown in this country, so the opportunity to taste them doesn’t come often. Although not limited to cold-weather harvests, cardoons are usually available around the winter holidays, when they’re snatched up by people (usually Italians) familiar with their traditional uses in the kitchen.

My first encounter with cardoons was a sformata, eaten one damp winter’s night in Turin. With pieces of the vegetable lodged in a medium of cream, eggs, and Fontina cheese, the dish was absolutely sensational. (Of course, the combination of cream, eggs, and Fontina would taste blissful on an old shoe, notes Elissa Altman, a food-writer friend.)  

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Having recently worked through an entire case of cardoons, I've found that they're a somewhat formidable vegetable. For that reason, I believe they deserve all the rich embellishments you can lavish on them. 

When I showed my husband a four-pound bunch of cardoons, he remarked that it looked like some pretty rugged celery. This is a frequent comparison, as cardoons do resemble celery, but they’re not botanically related. Celery is an umbillifer, while cardoons reside in the daisy family. 

Cardoons form a larger, gnarlier-looking bundle than celery does. With sharp thorns marching down the edges of each stalk, cardoons do not readily invite you to break off a piece and take a bite. The surprise is that, even when raw, their taste is delicate, and indeed, cardoons are traditionally served raw in the classic Italian appetizer bagna cauda.
 
Cardoons and artichokes are closely related, but unlike artichokes, cardoons don’t produce a substantial edible thistle. It’s the cardoon's wide stem, or stalk, that’s favored in the kitchen, but only after you’ve gotten rid of the thorns, and then the strings, and then blanched the pieces until they're tender. Only then can you move on to making a dish. 

Even if you go through your most classical cookbooks, you’re not likely to find many recipes for cardoons. The standards include bagna cauda, salad, gratins, fried cardoons with anchovies, and cardoons braised with meat juices or bone marrow. The stalks also make a subtle soup reminiscent of an artichoke soup and an exquisite risotto. 

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Traditional recipes tend to employ either a lot of cream and cheese or the more assertive anchovies and garlic, but don’t tend to mix cardoons with other vegetables. Chefs for whom cardoons are a new food, or those who are unencumbered by cultural traditions, don’t mind pairing cardoons with other vegetables. I’m not averse to that approach, although you do risk overpowering cardoons' delicacy. 

Still, I’ve had more success this way in introducing them to others. When I made a cardoon salad with a lively Meyer lemon vinaigrette, fresh thyme, and roasted hazelnuts, my guests said they liked it, but didn’t feel that it warranted the effort involved. Adding slices of the common waxy yellow potatoes to the mix, however, worked well to redeem the cardoon, perhaps because the potatoes were familiar, or the subtle contrast in color was so pleasing. 

Because cardoons are expensive and the preparation is more than what’s usually required for a vegetable, I would definitely feature cardoons in a course devoted only to them, where they can stand in all their singular glory. I think my favorite preparation is a cardoon risotto, which preserves the vegetable's delicacy of flavor and its celadon hue. 

If you’re intrigued but don’t have any cardoons, celery and celery root make a fine winter risotto, too.

p(bio). Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.


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