A couple of weeks ago, I saw whole rosettes of cardoons for the first time at our local farmers market. Although one farm has sold large, more mature stalks of this celery doppelgänger individually (for a dollar a piece) for a number of years, last month Mariquita Farm started selling younger, more tender bunches of cardoons at a more reasonable price. Mariquita's Andy Griffin has sold these to his restaurant customers for a long time, but has now thankfully made them available to us.
Admittedly, the first thing that flashed in my mind at the sight of the oversized, spiky leafed stalks was anguish. I remembered the stressful day I was first introduced to the cardoon. I toiled for hours in a corner of one restaurant's kitchen, even skipping lunch, trying to finish peeling cases upon cases of this troublesome member of the thistle family, its bitter juices staining my fingers black. I learned intimately that the cardoon, like its cousin the artichoke, needs to be lavished with lots of love and attention to coax out its subtle herbaceous sweetness. But I suppose that's true of most of the best things in life, isn't it?
Realizing, with an immodest amount of smug elation, that I only have to cook for two chez moi, I decided to buy a single bunch. I sought out the smallest, liveliest looking bunch, because younger cardoons generally are more tender and require less preparation. Firm, solid stalks are more desirable, too, so I avoided any bunches with hollow, stringy stalks.
When I arrived home with my prize, N inquired with her usual tact, "What the f@#$ happened to that sorry-looking bunch of celery?"
Not surprisingly, she had never seen cardoons, which are rarely eaten outside of southern Europe. In Italy, Spain and France, where they are very popular during the holiday season, they are considered a colder season vegetable. According to Chez Panisse Vegetables, however, they are in season in California from the spring to the fall. I appreciate that Mariquita seems to be following the European tradition.
To prepare my bounty, I set up a bowl of acidulated water, which is a fancy term for water with lemon juice squeezed into it. I also put a pot of heavily salted water on the stove to boil. Then I cut off the base of the cardoon bunch, freeing the individual stalks. One at a time, I used my paring knife to trim off any jagged edges or leaves from each stalk. Then I peeled off the tough strings as best as I could (pictured left), just as you might string a stalk of celery. After I was done peeling each stalk, I cut it into 3- or 4-inch pieces and dropped them into my bowl of acidulated water to prevent them from turning brown.
When I was done prepping all the stalks, I dropped them into the pot of boiling water and simmered them until tender, about 15 to 20 minutes. They can take as long as 30 or even 45 minutes to reach tenderness, depending on the size and age of the cardoons.
My bunch of Mariquita's cardoons, which weighed about two pounds, yielded enough cooked stalks to make 4 healthy-sized appetizer or side-dish portions.
Now that my cardoons were ready to use, I had to decide how to serve them. A Spanish recipe for cardoons with almond sauce that I had seen in Janet Mendel's My Kitchen in Spain came to mind, as did lots of variations of Italian recipes for frying, gratinéeing or braising the stalks.
In the end, though, I opted for the familiar, the way I first learned to love this thistle. One of the longtime chefs at Chez Panisse Café, Russell Moore, taught me to simply cut the tender boiled stalks at an angle (on the bias, as we say in the kitchen), dress them with an assertive vinaigrette made from anchovies, garlic, lemon, a touch of red wine vinegar, and olive oil, and shower them with chopped hard-boiled eggs.
The eggs and olive oil add much needed creaminess to the otherwise naked cardoons, while the anchovies and lemon juice highlight rather than overwhelm the natural sweetness of the vegetable. A truly spectacular start to any autumnal meal.
With cardoons finally so readily available, I have a feeling they're going to make a frequent appearance at our dinner table this autumn and winter.
This post, by the way, is my entry for this week's Weekend Herb Blogging, sponsored by Kalyn of Kalyn's Kitchen. Although, of course, cardoons are not an herb, any plant or vegetable is apparently an acceptable topic.