Cardoons with parmesan – brutti ma buoni…

Wow, how good are cardoons?  And how did I not know about them until now?

We had a lovely farmers’ market dinner tonight – kipfler potatoes sautéed with garlic and tomato and those lovely peppers and sweet chillis from the Italian vegetable stall, and cardoons baked with parmesan.  Dessert is going to be a croissant bread and butter pudding with raspberries and my raspberry lavender butter through it. I sort of made up the recipe, which means it will be either very good or very bad, as I don’t really do custards and thus don’t actually know what I’m doing and probably shouldn’t meddle with the recipe.  If it’s good, I’ll post the recipe tomorrow.

Sorry, digressed into dessert-land a bit there.  That happens a lot around here.  Anyway, the potatoes peperonata were wonderful – amazing what really good peppers will do for a dish – and they went perfectly with the cardoons which, it turns out, taste a lot like artichokes without being anywhere near such a pain to prepare.

Frankly, I can’t imagine why cardoons aren’t trendier than they are.  Well, actually, I can – it probably has something to do with the fact that they are as ugly as sin, and have to be boiled for about half an hour before you can do much with them.  On the other hand, they are absolutely full of potassium, calcium, vitamin B9, and you can use their juice as a vegetarian rennet in cheesemaking.  What’s not to like?

Moreover, compared to preparing either globe or Jerusalem artichokes, they are an absolute breeze.  And it’s not like you can’t do other stuff (watch MasterChef, make your peperonata, plot your pudding) while they are boiling.  They may not be the fastest way to get that tangy, slightly metallic artichoke flavour onto your plate, but they are certainly the least fiddly.  They also have a very satisfying texture – I’m tempted to call it meaty, in the way mushrooms or aubergines are described as meaty, but it’s heartier than that.  And very, very good – despite their resemblance to celery, they are not at all watery, and you can get a nice mouthful of artichokiness without having to work for it.

Raw cardoons.  A bit like celery, but the colour is more blue-grey (hidden anthocyanins at work?)

Basic cardoon preparation is: have a big bowl of lemony water standing by, along with half a lemon and a large saucepan of water getting ready to boil.  Chop the ends off the cardoons, and run a knife down the sides to remove all the leaves.  Remove any strings you can – they are like celery in this respect.  Cut them into 2-3 inch lengths, rub all the cut bits against the lemon, and pop them into the acidulated water while you prepare the rest.  This is less tricky than it sounds – unlike globe artichokes, which discolour in the blink of an eye, you can take one cardoon, top and tail it, de-leaf and de-string it and chop it up and then do the lemon thing, and it will be just fine.  (Of course, the colour is so unappealing that discoloration could hardly make it worse…)

Then you just boil the cardoons until they are tender.  I’ve seen estimates ranging from 10 minutes to 2 1/2 hours for boiling time; for me they took about 40 minutes to get to tenderness.  I can imagine them taking ten minutes if young and tender; 2 1/2 hours, though, would surely reduce them to mush.  My personal method of cooking them involved sticking them into the pot at the beginning of MasterChef and checking at every ad break, while preparing the peperonata.  This worked quite well.

You can eat your boiled cardoons just dressed with olive oil and lemon, or you can get far more elaborate.  The recipe I used called for flouring them, frying them briefly in olive oil, and then baking them with salt, pepper and parmesan.

Baked with parmesan. Still ugly, but so tasty…

It was really lovely.  I’ve also seen recipes for fritters and deep-fried cardoons (apparently cardoons are a big thing on the Christmas table in Sicily), and I think they would be marvellous in a frittata – they have the sort of taste that would be perfect with eggs and cheese.  I’m told that you can eat them raw, but about the only people who do are the Piedmontese, who dip them into Bagna Cauda (a rather scary anchovy dip).  Raw cardoons are apparently extremely bitter, and can cause digestive problems in some, so perhaps better not.

As for me, I’m already plotting my next foray to the Farmers’ Market for more cardoons.  I think I have a new favourite vegetable…

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