Cardoon is available fresh and local from winter through early spring.
Cardoon has a more bitter than sweet taste that hints of artichoke, asparagus, celery, and salsify.
The cardoon is related to the artichoke. Both are edible members of the thistle family. The name cardoon comes from the Latin carduus or the later French chardon—which means thistle.
Cardoon is prepared like asparagus and celery and is served as a vegetable side dish or added to soups or stews. Cooked it is soft and meaty.
Cardoon is thought to have originated in the Mediterranean region where the Greeks and Romans considered it as an essential ingredient in a gourmet meal.
Today, cardoon continues that regional popularity in France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and the countries of North Africa. In Italy, cardoon is called cardoni. In Spain, the blanched stalks or ribs of the inner leaves of cardoon are used in cocido—a meat and vegetable stew. (For more on cocido, read here tomorrow.)
Choose. Look for cardoon with smaller stalks that are firm and have a dull-silvery, gray-green color. The outer stalks of larger bunches can be woody, hard and covered with soft spikes. Avoid stalks that are wilting or browning—although the top of stalks that have had their upper leaves removed will brown slightly.
Store. Place a damp paper towel at the base of each bunch then place the bunch in a plastic bag in the refrigerator. Cardoon will store for up to 2 weeks.
Serve. Cardoon is prepared much like celery or asparagus. It can be boiled, braised or baked. Remove the tough outer ribs. Cut the inner ribs to the size called for then soak them in a light lemon or lime water to prevent browning. Many recipes call for pre-cooking cardoon for 15-30 minutes in boiling water. Pre-cooking cardoon will remove the bitterness.
In Italy, young cardi is cut into strips, tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper and then baked in a moderate oven. When the cardi is baked tender, it is removed from the oven and sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and served.
Raw cardoon can be chopped into salads, but taste a piece to make sure it is not bitter. If it is, pre-cook the stalks, chill then serve.
The botanical name for cardoon is Cynara cardunculus.