Exploring Cardoons

The day before my CSA pick up we get an email from the farm listing the selections of the week. This is my third year getting a farm share from Hilltop Hanover Farm and I am always happy to report that every year they try a couple of new heirloom vegetables, which is so darn cool! Last week we got the cutest little dwarf purple corn cobs which were amazing. This week, be still my heart, we got cardoons. I’m sure some of you are saying “cardoons?” what the heck are they?

   

Before we get to cooking them, let’s first talk botanically: Cardoons live in the artichoke family. Their leaves and flowers are spiky thistles and the stalks, at first blush, look like celery on steroids. They are native to the Mediterranean and were cultivated centuries ago. Their taste is (no surprise) like a mild artichoke with a hint of lemon.

In Italy and Spain you tend to find cardoons between November and February, usually appearing on the Christmas buffet table. It is great good luck for us that you can also find them at the farmers market in the summer!

My first foray with the tasty cardoon was working at Tarry Lodge in Port Chester, several years ago. Andy Nusser went the traditional way and cooked them in a besciamella sauce, as a side dish. While I do love to make, and eat, a killer besciamella, it’s not that inspiring for me in the summer.

I will warn you, the grand cardoon takes a little work, but don’t worry it’s not really onerous. Frankly, when presented with something special like the cardoon it’s nice to sidle up to the kitchen counter and experiment.

First will need to prep the cardoon, before we do anything with them. Nip off the ends, strip off the leaves and peel. Take care with the random spiky thistles too. My handy Y-peeler did the job in a snap. Next cut them down into your desired shape. I went with a two-bite size. Last, you need to boil the cardoons mainly because they are tough and fibrous. While they are boiling you can get the rest of your ingredients together.

 

A quick shout out on the eggs pictured: whenever I am at Hilltop Hanover I always pick some up. They have a beautiful brood of hens there and the eggs are just so divine. My breading was simple: flour seasoned with salt and pepper, a few eggs beaten and plain toasted breadcrumbs.            
I also had eggplant, pattypans, zucchini and baby potatoes in my share, so I decided to do a little “fritto misto verdure,” fried mixed vegetables. You can easily eat this dish with a good squeeze of lemon, but I had a boatload of fresh basil so a chunky basil pesto was in order.

Yes,  you are seeing correctly …. I used hazelnuts instead of pine nuts. Hazelnuts work extremely well with artichokes and with the cardoon having the same flavor profile it was the perfect foil.

Find yourself a good, flavorless oil for this recipe. You don’t want to mask the flavor of the vegetables, particularly your cardoons. A good sprinkling of kosher salt and a squeeze of lemon is all you really need. If you feel like a little extra nuttiness is in order right before serving a couple of grates of Grana Padano parmigianno will do the trick. Serve with a nice bright wine or frosty beer. This is a perfect dish to enjoy on a lazy summer evening as the sun sets.

Buon appetito!

Cardoons

1 lb. cardoon stalks, leaves stripped off and ends trimmed
Kosher salt
1 -2 large lemons
All-purpose flour
Ground black pepper
2-3 eggs
Toasted plain breadcrumbs
Canola or avocado oil

1. Peel off the stringy layer of the cardoon. Rinse and cut into 2-inch pieces.

2. Bring a 2-quart pot of water to boil and add a tablespoon of salt and 1/2 of the lemon. Add the cardoons and lower to a rolling simmer. Cook for about 30-45 minutes, or until they are tender. Drain and cool a bit.

3. While the cardoons blanch set up a breading station with three small pans: flour, beaten eggs and breadcrumbs.  Season the flour with salt and pepper. For every one cup add 1 teaspoon of salt and pepper. Place your breaded vegetables on a rack lined rimmed sheet.

4. In a high rimmed sauté pan bring your canola or avocado oil to 375 degrees. You want about two inches of oil.  Carefully place the breaded vegetables in, avoid crowding. Cook on both sided until golden brown. Remove from the oil and cool on the rack. Sprinkle with kosher salt.

5. Serve warm with a good squeeze of fresh lemon, crusty bread and a nice pesto or lemon aioli.

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