This year, my love of feral plants that are pointy and slightly dangerous inspired me to try my hand at growing cardoon, a lesser-known relative of the artichoke that is considered a delicacy in Mediterranean cuisine. Cardoons look a lot like artichokes and even produce similar-looking flowers. But while artichokes are all about the delicious, immature flower buds, cardoons are prized for their stalks, which taste something like a smoky artichoke with a trace of licorice.
Finding a place to grow this massive plant in my tiny city plot proved to be the first of many interesting hurdles in the journey from garden to table. Cardoon is like a wild thistle that has been treated with the same magic as Jack's beanstalk. It's a rather large (and sharp) plant with a wide girth that requires lots of personal space. With toothy silver leaves that grow into a six-inch-tall rosette, it is a bold and sculptural plant that is worth growing even if you can't be bothered with the hassle that goes with eating it.
I grew two: one that I put in at my community garden plot and another that I gave to my friend Barry, who decided to grow his as a tropical-look ornamental in a sunny and protected part of his garden. His grew much larger than mine and faster too. I suspect it had to do with the added sun and space he was able to provide since mine was in a cramped spot with a lot of competition for sun and root space.
Despite their Mediterranean origin, cardoons are demanding plants that require lots of soil nutrition and water. Barry and I were on equal ground there - we both fertilized in the spring with organic duck manure and the growing season here in Southern Ontario proved to be perfect for cardoons with ample rain to keep our gardens evenly moist. I started the seeds indoors in April; however, that proved to be quite late for our region and it was touch and go as to whether the plants would be able to catch up and produce a harvest before winter. I'd suggest starting yours at least two to three months before the last spring frost in your area and then transfer the seedlings outside after all danger of frost has passed. Provide lots of nitrogen-based fertilizer and water deeply during a drought to grow the leaves big and succulent for good eating. Do let your plant produce those gorgeous, purplish flower heads. However, do not let them scatter seed or you'll be gifted with a garden full of baby cardoons next spring.
Now that fall is upon us, Barry and I are taking the final steps to harvesting our crops. Left to their own devices, cardoon stalks are terribly fibrous, bitter and inedible. Like rhubarb, celery and other stem crops, they taste best if you can blanch the plant in the garden to soften it up for eating. This is done by wrapping or covering the bottom foot or so in burlap, landscaping fabric or a cardboard box stuffed with newspapers to keep the sunlight out. It's easier said than done, as those long leaves are thorny and a pain to get under control. Ask a helper to get underneath the plant and lift the leaves up while you tie it together with string. You'll have more luck if you sacrifice a few bottom stems first. The plant stays in this mummified state for three to six weeks, at which point you can cut it off at the base with a knife and prepare the stems for eating.
Which brings us to the third and final hurdle: cooking it. Preparing cardoon in the kitchen takes the patience of a saint. This is not easy eating. Blanching in the garden eradicates some of the bitterness, but it is simply not enough to rid the stalks of their dental-floss-like strings.
First, cut the leafy parts and thorns off of the stems with a pair of scissors or a knife. Next, run a vegetable peeler along all sides to remove the thicker, most aggressive fibres. Chop the remaining stems into two-inch pieces and soak in a bowl of cold water with a splash of lemon juice to keep the prepared bits from turning brown as you go.
Finally, parboil the cardoons in salted water until tender - about 20 to 40 minutes. This is the one vegetable that is not going to go to pot if overcooked, so don't be afraid to go to town with it and then some.
If you're ready to tackle it, here's a recipe for cardoon gratin.
There are several ways to prepare cardoons. North Africans cook it in a tagine alongside meat, preserved lemons and spices, while Northern Italians would not dream of serving a bagna càuda without it. Last fall, I used my first bunch of cardoons in a creamy, herb-infused gratin, because, frankly, what doesn't taste good with butter and cheese?
1 bunch cardoons, chopped into 2-inch lengths and parboiled
1½ cups milk
1 teaspoon thyme leaves, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
2 to 3 slices stale bread or 1 cup breadcrumbs
½ cup Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon lemon zest (optional)
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1½ cups of milk
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 375 F and prepare the cardoons as outlined, cooking until tender.
Add thyme and garlic to the milk and steep for 15 to 20 minutes. While they're steeping, make breadcrumbs by chopping the stale bread in a food processor. Mix in Parmesan cheese and lemon zest and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Make a béchamel sauce by heating the butter in a pan until melted. Whisk in the flour and cook for a minute. Remove the garlic clove from the milk, gradually whisk the milk in and continue simmering on medium-low heat to form a thick, smooth sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Butter the bottom and sides of a casserole dish with a pat of butter or a teaspoon of olive oil. Add the cardoons to the casserole dish and pour the béchamel sauce over top. Cover the cardoons evenly with the breadcrumb mixture and bake in the oven until it is golden brown and bubbling hot straight through (about 20 to 30 minutes).
Serves 2 to 4.
Gayla Trail's new book is Grow Great Grub: Organic Food From Small Spaces . For more gardening tips, visit www.yougrowgirl.com.