The difficult cardoon

Feature it in risotto

February 18, 2011

With their silvery-gray leaves festooning broad stalks, cardoons are impressive plants. Yes, they’re edible, but you might also want to use them as cornerstones in an ornamental garden.

Sadly, cardoons aren’t commonly grown in this country, so the opportunity to taste them doesn’t come often. Although not limited to cold-weather harvests, cardoons are usually available around the winter holidays, when they’re snatched up by people (usually Italians) familiar with their traditional uses in the kitchen.

My first encounter with cardoons was a sformata, eaten one damp winter’s night in Turin. With pieces of the vegetable lodged in a medium of cream, eggs, and Fontina cheese, the dish was absolutely sensational. (Of course, the combination of cream, eggs, and Fontina would taste blissful on an old shoe, notes Elissa Altman, a food-writer friend.)

The base of the cardoon.

Having recently worked through an entire case of cardoons, I’ve found that they’re a somewhat formidable vegetable. For that reason, I believe they deserve all the rich embellishments you can lavish on them.

When I showed my husband a four-pound bunch of cardoons, he remarked that it looked like some pretty rugged celery. This is a frequent comparison, as cardoons do resemble celery, but they’re not botanically related. Celery is an umbillifer, while cardoons reside in the daisy family.

Cardoons form a larger, gnarlier-looking bundle than celery does. With sharp thorns marching down the edges of each stalk, cardoons do not readily invite you to break off a piece and take a bite. The surprise is that, even when raw, their taste is delicate, and indeed, cardoons are traditionally served raw in the classic Italian appetizer bagna cauda.

Cardoons and artichokes are closely related, but unlike artichokes, cardoons don’t produce a substantial edible thistle. It’s the cardoon’s wide stem, or stalk, that’s favored in the kitchen, but only after you’ve gotten rid of the thorns, and then the strings, and then blanched the pieces until they’re tender. Only then can you move on to making a dish.

Even if you go through your most classical cookbooks, you’re not likely to find many recipes for cardoons. The standards include bagna cauda, salad, gratins, fried cardoons with anchovies, and cardoons braised with meat juices or bone marrow. The stalks also make a subtle soup reminiscent of an artichoke soup and an exquisite risotto.

Traditional recipes tend to employ either a lot of cream and cheese or the more assertive anchovies and garlic, but don’t tend to mix cardoons with other vegetables. Chefs for whom cardoons are a new food, or those who are unencumbered by cultural traditions, don’t mind pairing cardoons with other vegetables. I’m not averse to that approach, although you do risk overpowering cardoons’ delicacy.

Still, I’ve had more success this way in introducing them to others. When I made a cardoon salad with a lively Meyer lemon vinaigrette, fresh thyme, and roasted hazelnuts, my guests said they liked it, but didn’t feel that it warranted the effort involved. Adding slices of the common waxy yellow potatoes to the mix, however, worked well to redeem the cardoon, perhaps because the potatoes were familiar, or the subtle contrast in color was so pleasing.

Because cardoons are expensive and the preparation is more than what’s usually required for a vegetable, I would definitely feature cardoons in a course devoted only to them, where they can stand in all their singular glory. I think my favorite preparation is a cardoon risotto, which preserves the vegetable’s delicacy of flavor and its celadon hue.

If you’re intrigued but don’t have any cardoons, celery and celery root make a fine winter risotto, too.

Deborah Madison is the author of numerous award-winning cookbooks, including Local Flavors. She lives in New Mexico.

Related recipe: Cardoon Risotto

There are 14 comments on this item
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1. by jdixon on Feb 18, 2011 at 7:32 AM PST

Cardoons grow well here in the Pacific Northwest, and I had them in our garden for years. I usually stuck with the classics like gratins, but inspired by some I had at Higgins, I made pickled cardoons that were very tasty.

2. by Deborah Madison on Feb 18, 2011 at 8:20 AM PST

Tell me more! Pickles. What a good idea! And aren’t you lucky that they grow well in the Northwest. I’m just got seed for a red Algerian variety that I’m going to try this summer.

3. by jdixon on Feb 19, 2011 at 7:43 AM PST

I used a basic refrigerator pickle approach, equal parts water and vinegar (shameless self-promotion: best is Katz Gravenstein Apple Cider Vinegar, Orleans method vinegar from California’s Suisun Valley), 2 parts salt to 1 sugar, boiled, cooled, and poured over sliced cardoons (prepped as you describe above). A few days in the refrigerator and eat.

I’ll admit that we mostly grew cardoons for the flowering thistle heads with their electric blue tops. But we did a little garden makeover last summer and pulled them out. We had several growing, all from a sampler seed packet I’d planted several years earlier. They were robust, and I’d moved some to different parts of our small garden, but they got to be about 10 feet tall and the lower leaves crowded out anything nearby. The biomass from trimming took over the compost, so we decided we could do without them for awhile.

4. by Deborah Madison on Feb 22, 2011 at 3:24 PM PST

Thanks so much, Jim. Now I wish I had a few more cardoons left!
Love the Katz vinegar --

5. by candrese on Feb 23, 2011 at 12:45 PM PST

I’m embarrassed to admit that I always thought cardoons were another name for artichoke. The plants are/look similar, no? I think I may have planted one in my yard!

6. by Richard Yarnell on Feb 23, 2011 at 1:10 PM PST

For those who live in the Portland area, you’ll find Cardoons in the demonstration garden at old Fort Vancouver. The were a staple of the diet there. Whether one can equate Cardoon with Chestnuts, it appears that they may have served a similar purpose for the Hudson Bay Co.

For those who contemplate having them in the garden, be aware that they naturally grow quite tall. Their blooms, similar to an artichoke but far more compact, open like a thistle to reveal their deep purple coloration.

Also beware that, like thistles, to which they’re related, their seeds will readily migrate and root. The solution is to never allow the blossom to mature, but, believe me, even one produces travelling seed.

Ms Madison implies that they come on the market as a winter vegetable. We’ve had success wrapping leaves as they emerge, depriving them of light, then using the ribs while they’re tender.

7. by anonymous on Feb 24, 2011 at 1:57 PM PST

Oh my gosh! The mere mention of cardoons brings mouth-watering goosebumps and a simultaneous rumble in my tummy and a headiness that only memories of cooking with Big Grandma (God rest her soul). We all loved her fried cardoons and ate them up while they were still piping hot. This was a Christmastime must-have. Gone are those days, or at least gone were those days, as I now plan on resuscitating the recipe once Christmas rolls around again.

Thanks for the memories!


8. by maxie on Feb 27, 2011 at 12:05 PM PST

Up until the late 60’s/early 70’s, you could still find cardoon growing on the hillsides in Malibu. I always looked forward to the family outing to gather as much as we could for one of our big get togethers.

I remember my mother’s and nonna’s hands turning black from cleaning the cardoons--am I remembering correctly?

9. by Deborah Madison on Mar 2, 2011 at 7:57 AM PST

Glad for all your comments! I was in Arkansas last week and unable to respond. Maxie, I think they can turn your hands black. That didn’t happen to me with the ones I had, but a lot of people have mentioned this, so I think you’re remembering correctly. I know artichokes can do weird things to your hands when you’re handling a lot of them, so probably cardoons can, too. They were growing in Malibu? How beautiful!

I loved hearing that the mention of cardoons brought one of you mouth watering goosebumps! I might have to quote you in my new book!

Thank you Richard for the warning that they’re large (that I know!) and that the seeds travel and root willingly. Just the kind of plant I like - though I doubt that will happen in dry New Mexico. Portland seems to be far more hospitable to the cardoon and the artichoke.

And Candrese, yes, artichoke and cardoons are closely related and the plants look similar. Cardoons however, make a smaller thistle flower - still edible, but not as large as the artichoke’s.

10. by Kathi Workman on Mar 6, 2011 at 6:10 PM PST

Oh, I like the sounds of “new book”, Deborah! When is it coming out?

11. by Deborah Madison on Mar 8, 2011 at 10:22 AM PST

Not for a while -a long while. I’ve just started it!

12. by Linda on Aug 17, 2013 at 3:08 PM PDT

I’ve had a Cardoon plant for 2 years and I thought it was an Artichoke. The plant is over 6’ tall and has huge leaves and the bulb (artichoke I thought) has pointy leaves and beautiful lavendar fuzz. My son tried to cook and eat one, but it just wasn’t what he expected. Now we know and will try the stalk only. The bees really do love the lavendar fuzz though and they’re good for the rest of my garden. It’s such a beautiful plant and draws lots of good comments from the neighbors.

13. by Deborah Madison on Aug 19, 2013 at 2:43 PM PDT

They do look a lot like artichokes, even their clusters of little “artichokes”. Bravo to your son for giving one a try!! The plants in this family (Asteraceae or asters, daisies, sunflowers etc.) are so handsome and strong. I think using it as an ornamental is the best way to go with cardoons. Enjoy them!

14. by anonymous on Sep 20, 2013 at 8:48 PM PDT

I grow them in my garden every year, I have ten gobbi (hunchbacks) blanching right now, just waiting for the holidays. As a 2nd generation italian-american whose grandparents all came from piemonte (just east of Torino), i cardi were a special treat at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Cardoons,bagna cauda, and homemade pasta always were on our holiday table. My favorite way to prepare cardoons is to boil them until tender then dip in egg and breadcrumbs and fry them in olive oil.

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Local Flavors

Deborah Madison, the celebrated cookbook author and local-food advocate, feeds us with her occasional reflections. Her latest book is Vegetable Literacy.

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