February 16, 2013

Growing and Cooking Cardoons

I found cardoons at my local market - a relative of the Artichoke, the stems are cooked and eaten and they have
the same flavor as artichoke hearts. After trimming off the fuzz and thorns, the stems are cooked and then added to any number of traditional winter dishes.


I came across some Cardoons for sale at our local market Wegmans last week, and it reminded me about a post which I never wrote last year. Cardoons are are a vegetable which more likely is grown by some of you as an ornamental plant - a striking thistle-like vase shaped plant with grayish prickly leaves, a magnificent vase shape and by late summer, a huge, architectural statement plant for large gardens. But this relative of the Artichoke ( Cynara cardunculus) occasionally shows up at the market at a winter vegetable, and one, which I feel deserves more attention. I thought that I might share both how I grow it, and how one can cook it.


My own cardoon stems from last October as I harvested them. The leaf stalks and the midribs have a flavor similar to artichokes, and the best part? With cardoons, you get your moneys worth, as anyone who has eaten a globe artichoke knows, there is far more waste than edible parts.
 The Cardoon has a long history in American horticulture, as it was  common colonial vegetable and one grown at Monticello in long rows. Today, few bother to grow the plant for food, opting for imported artichokes or those flown in from California, but the cardoon offers a more sustainable option to air-shipped artichokes, especially for those who garden in the north, and as an ornamental and a vegetable, it can be planted in the border rather than the vegetable garden.



Young cardoon transplants ready for setting out into the garden in late April. The variety I chose last year was 'Porto Spineless' from Johnnys Selected Seeds, but be warned, it still will have some thistle-like spines along the edges of
each stalk and leaf.
 Cardoon seeds must be sown early, in late January or early February, much like artichokes. Seedlings will not need to be vernalized, or chilled for two or three weeks as artichoke seedlings require, they can simply be set out into the garden and allowed to grow all summer long. They cab behave like biennials in some climates ( I had a couple survive for two years in the garden) but generally, it is grown as an annual, with harvest planned for late October when one cuts the entire plant at soil level.

A crop of cardoon requires space, as they are really large thistle plants, but even if you don't want large, perfect specimen plants, they can be added to the perennial border as ornamental plants, just don't crowd them too much, if you want stems large enough to eat.

Provide lots of space, for a well grown cardoon can reach 5 feet tall, and nearly as wide. I included mine in a perennial bed and then planted some in a small raised bed, so they did not grow as large as they could have, but I was still able to harvest a decent amount of cardoon stalks for Christmas Eve dinner ( it's a traditional Italian dish at the Holiday's) and stored some in the root cellar for later in the winter, when I use it in traditional French gratineés. Peeled, poached and sliced, the tender stems are best in light gratin dishes with béchamel with a bit of nutmeg and alpine cheese, or served with buttered pasta. And what could ever be wrong with that!

By late October, Cardoon plants can reach nearly 4 or 5 feet tall, and able to handle light frosts. Traditionally, in Italy, it is a winter vegetable, often served at Christmas.



One must harvest the entire Cardoon plant before hard frost


Cardoons are easy, and even thought I did not fuss over mine, they still produced plants large enough for a
harvest that has lasted 5 winter months.


Peeled and cleaned cardoon stems must be cooked in acidulated water (lemon juice) until tender, about 30 minutes, not unlike artichokes.



After boiling cardoon stalks, they are cut into small slices, and then they can be prepared in any number of ways, but almost always ( and traditionally) prepared as a gratin, layered with Gruyere cheese, light cream and Parmesan.


As with artichokes, there is still a lot of waste. Nothing that the chickens and turkeys won't eat.



If you are lucky, cardoons will over winter and then bloom with blossoms worthy of cutting.



4 comments :

  1. Interesting post. I'd never heard of them before. They sure produce a pretty flower though!

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  2. I grew up eating cardoons, as a little girl I would eat so much of my mom's dish I would feel so full, delicious. When I moved to the States I was able to find them only a handful of time in the stores, usually in bad shape, picked days before. Once I had a garden I planted them, they are beautiful plants but take lots of space, so I can only have one or two going. I don't know whether it is the mild winter, but they never form the big center like yours. In Italy they blanched them by covering the leaves so they get more tender. I always wanted to try this. Thanks to their prolific nature I keep finding volunteers plants so no need to sow them back. I am going to use them in a part of the garden I haven't landscaped yet since they are great to establish a food forest as they have big roots and lots of green leaves to feed the soil.

    I rarely comment in your blog, but love your posts. I wish I had a green house....oh the possibilities!

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  3. Anonymous7:17 AM

    I grew these in 2011. In the fall I wrapped them up with paper to blanch them. You didn't mention doing this. Did you notice any difference? Our 2011/2012 winter was very mild and the plants survived. They bloomed last summer. Very pretty and the bees loved them.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Great post; I was unaware of them until now. I love the flavor of artichokes, and the flowers look spectacular. I'm adding them to my list for the coming season. While they appear to be too large for my veggie garden, I have a few spaces available in the perennial beds. Thanks for the info!

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