Verdant blankets of green are a neon eyeful at the moment, and cardoons are part of the garden’s spring fling. I should wear a party dress in the backyard to show my respect. Cardoons have a gawky elegance in contrast to the gnarly fence behind and the exuberant young clematis above – they’re edible and dramatic additions to a garden. Related to artichokes, their leaves are similar, they have a tiny ‘fruit’ not unlike an artichoke, but you’d have to be highly motivated to gather and cook enough of those little nubs to fill a plate.
Their stalks, however, are another matter. They’re edible, can be delicious and are commonly included in Italian and Spanish cuisine. It was, but of course, an Italian grandmother who introduced me to a primo cardoon preparation. My friend Jeannette’s mother, Gina Morelli Ceccarelli, ate cardoons as a child, and she was tickled to help prepare a platterful for a Sunday lunch a few years ago. In her nineties at the time, she showed us the way, the Italian way with cardoons.
In the name of truthiness, I have to say . . . you might assume that anything doused with egg, bread crumbs, cheese and then fried would have to be good. Not so much if you get cardoon stalks that are past prime. Decidedly bitter, and not delicious no matter how well accessorized. So, it’s critical to cut the youngest stalks from your own plant and check with vendors when buying at the market.
And, they’re not so easy to find. Whistling Train Farm will have cardoons over the next few weeks at Farmers Markets in Columbia City and West Seattle, probably a few other vendors as well. Mike and Shelley at Whistling Train Farm make a point of growing some produce that might be unexpected, like cardoons for example. They’d like for us to “break out of the grocery store box” and expand our what’s local repertoire. Produce department employees at several grocery stores stared blankly when I asked if they had or would have cardoons available anytime soon. Their puzzlement was my answer.
Having said that, if you can find some, go for it and cook up a plateful.
This recipe involves the hefty celery-looking, artichoke-tasting, but distinctive unto itself cardoon stalk, as well as some egg, bread crumbs, cheese, oil for frying, a little salt, and a squeeze of lemon.
Cardoons the Italian Way, with thanks and a toast to Gina Ceccarelli, Nana, for all she’s put on our table. Prepare stalks by trimming off their pointy leaves and peeling with a veggie peeler as you would a carrot or sometimes celery. Cut into approximately two-inch pieces and cook in salted water with a splash of vinegar or lemon for twenty to thirty minutes or until tender. Drain and wrap cardoons in a clean towel to absorb moisture.
While cardoons are steaming, whisk an egg and place in a wide dish; mix ½ C breadcrumbs with ½ C Parmesan cheese and a pinch of salt and pepper in another dish. Then dip each stalk into the egg, roll in the bread cheese mix until lavishly coated, and put directly into a pan of hot oil. Hot is best – you’ll get a golden crust very quickly and without much fat absorption. Olive oil doesn’t have a ‘tolerance’ for high heat, but is surely used by the Spanish and Italians. Use olive oil, Safflower oil would be good, or a mix of both.
Eat these puppies hot off the grill and imagine yourself somewhere in Italy, maybe an orchard in the late afternoon with a sip of wine. A Pacific Northwest backyard works too, or the kitchen table.