Real Food Encyclopedia | Cardoons
If you ever see what looks like a giant bunch of silvery-green celery at the market, buy it! Chances are you have stumbled upon the rare, elusive cardoon. Cardoons only resemble celery superficially. In fact, they are not related to celery but to artichokes, and they can be extremely difficult to find. They aren’t the easiest vegetable to prepare, either, but if you can slog through the prep, their artichoke-like deliciousness will reward you.
Fun Facts about Cardoons:
- Cardoons are used as a source of vegetable rennet in cheese production by Spanish and Portuguese cheese makers.
- The plant in considered an invasive weed in parts of California, South America and Australia, where it is unfortunately controlled with a number of herbicides.
- Cardoons even show up in art: see if you can spot them in Caravaggio’s “Still Life with Flowers and Fruit” (painted in 1601).
What to Look for When Buying Cardoons
Cardoons are sold in large bunches that look a lot like spiky, silvery celery. Stalks should be firm with no spongy or blackened spots. Each stalk is covered in sharp spines, so be careful when you’re prepping (more on that, below). Cardoons have a mild artichoke-like flavor, but with a sort of juiciness and texture similar to celery.
Sustainability of Cardoons
Cardoons are such a niche vegetable in the US that their environmental impact is likely pretty negligible. Look for organic cardoons if you can find them, though the esoteric nature of the vegetable may limit your ability to purchase them organically.
Cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) are botanically thistles, in the Asteraceae (daisy) family, one of the largest flowering plant families. Their closest relatives are artichokes, but unlike artichokes, cardoons are grown for their thick stems, rather than their flower bud. Lettuce, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes (aka, sunchokes), calendula, tarragon and marigolds are also edible family members.
Cardoons are grown from seed and are perennials. The plant itself is huge and very, very striking, from its spiky purple thistle flower to its silvery foliage. Unfortunately, it’s got a bit of a reputation amongst gardeners as being difficult, in part because if its size and in part because it must be blanched to be edible. In the garden, blanching means that parts of the plant are mounded with soil or otherwise covered to inhibit chlorophyll production; this makes the plant more tender and often less bitter, Today, cardoons are generally blanched by surrounding the stalks with hay, soil, newspaper or floating row cover for at least a month.
If you live in California, you might be lucky enough to find cardoons in the spring, but for most in this country, cardoons are a cool-weather vegetable. They show up in the market in mid- to late fall. It’s pretty unlikely that you’ll find them at your local grocery store, so scour farmers’ markets near you to find them.
High-maintenance cardoons don’t store well. If you can, plan to use them no more than a day or two after you’ve purchased them. The last thing you want is a floppy cardoon, so wrap them in damp paper towels, stick them in a zip-top bag and place in your crisper to keep them perky.
Cooking with Cardoons
Cardoons are a giant pain to prep. Some cooks say to wear gloves when working with them to avoid their painful spikes. They must first be peeled — a paring knife or vegetable peeler works best — and then must be boiled (generally for at least 20-30 minutes, or longer) to tenderize them and to reduce their bitterness. Only then can you fry, sauté, braise or bake them to your heart’s content. Here is a step-by-step tutorial on prepping cardoons.
Much like their artichoke cousins, cardoons pair delightfully well with citrus (think lemons and their juice), dairy (think cheese and cream) and meats like beef and chicken. They can be braised, baked, fried or sautéed — but they must be boiled first to reduce their bitterness and to tenderize them. Cardoons are common in Italian food, where they turn up in risottos, pastas and soups. In Italy, cardoons are traditionally eaten raw in bagna cauda, the dip classically made with anchovies and olive oil – but the cardoons we get in the US tend to be far too bitter to eat raw. They are also popular in North African cuisine, especially Moroccan, where they are added to tagines (like this meatball tagine or this beef tagine). Here’s a great cardoon recipe roundup from Food52 ; if antique recipes float your boat, here are some 19th century cardoon recipes dug up by the University of South Carolina.
High in fiber, cardoons are also rich in vitamins and minerals, like folate, Vitamin C, calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, copper and manganese.