Nearly 10 years ago I grew two lovely cardoon (Cynara cardunculus) plants 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.
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.
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.
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)
• 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