Called “cardi” in Italian, cardoons are a thistlelike vegetable which is used in European countries, and is especially popular in the region of Abruzzo, Italy. It is, however, sadly neglected by most Americans, although they do grow wild in America. Cooked cardoons are similar to artichoke hearts both in flavor and texture. They are lightly woody and just a little bitter. The wild cardoons tend to be a little tough and stringy but still delicious.
Abruzzo is famous for producing especially white, tender cardoons in the late fall and its cardoon & turkey soup at Christmas is renowned. They grow quite easily in the cold climate of the mountains. The cardoon resembles a bunch of wide, long, flat celery and is available in mid-winter to early spring. The cultivated variety can be found in Italian, Greek and middle-eastern markets. They are somewhat milder and easier to deal with compared with the wild ones. If you can find them, look for stalks that are firm and have a silvery grey-green color. They can be refrigerated in a plastic bag for up to 2 weeks.
Cardoons can be boiled and used in soups, braised, baked, and fried (recipe to follow). In the event you can’t find cardoons, Swiss Chard stalks or celery are a perfect substitute.
Ingredients for 6
- 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves chopped
- 1 lb. ripe tomatoes salt and freshly ground pepper
- 3 lbs cardoons (or Swiss chard stalks or celery) juice of 1 lemon
- 1 cup all purpose flour
- 1 egg beaten with a pinch of salt oil for deep frying
- 2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Heat oil in a skillet over medium-low heat. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper and cook over low heat for 30 minutes or until the sauce is dense. Meanwhile, clean the stalks, removing the leaves and peeling away the outer strings. Cut into small pieces (about 1 inch long) and place in a bowl of water with lemon juice. Bring plenty of salted water to a boil in a large sauce pan. Drop in the pieces of stalks and cook until tender but firm. Drain, rinse under cold running water and let dry. Heat oil to just before smoking point.
Dredge the pieces in flour and then dip in the egg. Deep fry until crisp and golden on all sides. Drain on paper towels, transfer to a serving plate and keep hot. Stir the parsley into the hot tomato sauce, pour it into a serving bowl and serve separately. The pieces of cardoon can be served as an appetizer with the tomato sauce used as a dip, or as a side dish.