Cardoons: An Edible Ornamental

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Joe, the Cardoon, and I
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Nearly 10 years ago I grew two lovely cardoon (Cynara cardunculusplants here at the house. An easy plant to grow from seed, I jokingly referred to it them as ‘Cardoonicus Maximus’ due to their imposing stature. Though clearly not at all the proper technical name for the plant, it stuck. If ever you’ve seen one of these in person, you’ll know they’re very dramatic. Many strangers would approach me when I was out front gardening to ask about them. I was proud.

But few ever asked why I’d grown them…

You see, back then, one of Grandpa Sam’s cousins was still alive. Like my grandfather, Joe had been the son of Sicilian immigrants. While visiting him one day at a nearby nursing home, we started to talk about the Sicilian dishes my family used to make and the unusual vegetables they’d grow for special dishes. Joe told me that only the old guys grew these plants and that he’d always thought they tasted good.

He added that he’d noticed gardens in SE Portland where cardoons had been planted, but that the cardoons were clearly not being grown to be eaten. He thought that was really funny. I’d noticed them too, and thought the plants were pretty, so I asked him if he’d like for me to grow some for him. We were both really excited about the arrangement so it was off to the garden I went!

Sadly, Joe did not live long enough to share those first cardoons with our family, so now whenever I see them, it makes me kind of sad. Eating those first few batches was kind of emotional without him.

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Growing cardoons is quite easy since they are technically thistles.

Need I say more? 

They like sun, can tolerate poor soil, and don’t need a lot of water. Their spines hurt though and in order to prepare them to be eaten their centers need to be blanched. This means tying the plants up and heaping soil around their base.

In my climate (zone 8) they are an edible perennial. (We ate ours for three seasons then tore out the plants due to their size.)

I’ve found that they are very easily grown from seed. If you can grow artichokes, you can grow cardoons.

Cooking the CardoonsIMG_8146

Last winter—while giving a talk about seed starting at Drake’s Garden Store—the co-host of a local garden-themed TV show was in the audience and asked me if I’d cook them on the show. (I was discussing growing them from seed—go figure.)

“Of course,” I blurted out!

So here we are today. Since I didn’t grow the plants this season I had to find a local purveyor and was lucky enough to find them courtesy of Viridian Farms. We’re blessed with great local growers and I can’t wait to cook up more of their produce. They have an amazing selection of hard-to-find items.

(If you’re interested in seeing me in the Garden Time episode you can find it by clicking here. I’m in the last segment with my friend William and I have to say the experience was wonderful.)

As for the recipe I used, here it is!

Cardoons in Tomato Sauce

(adapted from Angelo Pellegrini’s recipe in his book The Unprejudiced Palate)

Ingredients

• 1 head of fresh cardoons (remove the thickest outer stalks)

• 3-4 slices of bacon, 1/4 lb. lean salt pork, cut into pieces

• 1 large clove of garlic, minced

• 1 medium onion, minced

• 3 sprigs of parsley, chopped

• 1 sprig of marjoram, minced

• 1 cup of tomatoes, canned and diced

• 1 cup of stock, chicken or vegetable

• 1/2 cup Parmigiano cheese

• 1/2 cup bread crumbs

• salt and pepper to taste

• 2 lemons or 1/2 cup lemon juice

Remove the hardened outer stalks of the cardoon and use the inner portion of the plant for this recipe. Prepare the cardoon stalks one at a time with a knife and/or peeler and when finished, place each piece into a bowl of water acidified with lemon juice.

To prepare the cardoons, remove the tough outer ribs on each stalk with a knife or peeler. Then scape the inner portion to remove some of the fuzziness. (This can be done with a small knife.) Slice each stalk into 2- to 3-inch pieces and toss into the large bowl of lemon water. After the cardoons are all prepared, toss them into a large pot of boiling water with a pinch of salt to scald them. Boil for several minutes and then drain and set aside.

In a large pan cook the bacon or pork pieces for several minutes until browned. Add the onion and garlic and continue to cook for 5 minutes over medium heat. Toss in the parsley and marjoram and cook slowly until the onions are done. Add the tomatoes and stock and simmer for 15 minutes. At this point add the drained cardoons and simmer for approximately 20-30 minutes longer making sure to turn the cardoons often. They will be ready when the cardoons are tender.

A few minutes before serving, sprinkle with breadcrumbs and cheese and stir.

If you’d like to make the dish more fancy drizzle lightly with truffle oil. The dish also goes very well with a roasted chicken or other simple main dish.

(If you’d like to learn more about pioneering food and garden writer Angelo Pellegrini find out more by clicking here.)

Footnote: Impressing your Friends with the Cardoon

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Walking through the farmer’s market with one of these slung over your shoulder will make other shoppers jealous. I can’t tell you how many men pointed and wanted whatever it was my husband had because it was big and looked cool.

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Leaving a ‘Great White’ Cardoon on your front porch will impress your dinner guests and gardening buddies.

(To learn more about the pioneering food and edible gardening author Angelo M. Pellegrini, click this link for more information: Pellegrini Foundation )

To Love One’s Vegetables and Philosophy Too

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My Sicilian relatives never lived on the East Coast. They immediately headed to Oregon where they’d heard the soil was good and cities were open for business. They were truck farmers vending fruits and vegetables during the first generation, a dream that would never have been possible in Sicily.
My grandfather Salvatore (aka Sam), the son of these immigrants, met his American wife while vending food for his family in Portland. Born and raised in Oregon, he was a Sicilian-American who liked to draw, and was a skilled sign painter before WWII. Virginia, his future wife, was in the stall across from his, vending produce for her family, but their farm was run by her mother, a divorced Catholic woman, a feminist, and Virginia’s two younger brothers.
Sam fell in love with her blue-grey eyes and she with his large brown ones. Despite their different backgrounds, they were both Catholic (Alsatian German on Grandma’s side), and they both loved gardening, farming, family, and their home state of Oregon.
So much of who I am is in their stories, and I am blessed to have known both my Sicilian great-grandmother Rosaria, and my feminist great-grandmother Mary. My Grandma Virginia was my rock for many years, but my Grandpa Sam passed away the year before my birth. I think because of this I was destined to be so close to his wife.
When I met my husband during college I realized that I’d been wanting the wrong thing for many years. One day, while eating anchovies out of a jar together, we realized it was the end of dating for both of us. Back then we would talk about food for hours and hours, discussing gardening, and farming, and soon we both realized that we were more Italian than we had thought. Sure Italians love their food, but they love growing it too. (Ugh, I just realized, ten years later and we STILL talk about the same things.)

Last night I couldn’t sleep because I have a cold—in addition to the regular health complications—so I grabbed two books to read from off my bedside bookshelves. For a moment I reflected on the choices and they made me laugh. (I highly recommend both, but only one is really about gardening while the other is about stuff you might think about while gardening.)

Angelo Pellegrini may already be familiar to some of you because Mario Batali happened to write the Introduction to the Modern Library’s Food Series edition of The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life (1948). This book is a modern classic and a foodie favorite. (He is also likely the first author of a pesto recipe published in the United States. See Wikipedia entry: Wikipedia: Angelo Pellegrini.)

In The Food-Lover’s Garden (1970), Pellegrini attacks the topic of small lot gardening—the Italian way of course. Included are the uncommon cardoon—a personal favorite of mine—as well as advice based upon his experiences while gardening in the Seattle area. (Yes, this is another spaghetti westerner, much like the Batali family, and my own.) He describes in great detail his kitchen garden while at the same time throwing in whatever else he finds important. He describes so well the gardens of the old Italians I used to haunt when I was still a small child, and which I only knew briefly, but am haunted by in my memory and in the photographs of my extended family. This year I will be making my own and I think that I have chosen to use his book as my guidepost, and my husband as co-pilot.

This brings me to the other book, a philosophy text written by the Booker prize winning author and philosopher Iris Murdoch. I know that few people read philosophy books, but I do, and I love them even if I don’t always understand them. That’s where my husband comes back into this, and my grandmother, and my roots. I love to talk about plants, the meaning of the universe, and to look at the stars when it isn’t pouring rain with thick clouds overhead. It is probably no accident that my husband is a winemaker. I am a feminist, and I thank all of you who dined before me, wiping the table, doing the dishes, and then putting them all away. Somehow making your legacy the whole time, moving westward always, the path led to me. Thank you and I dedicate my garden to all of you, as most gardeners do, tending soil, the heritage sport of summertime.