My husband says “cardoon” sounds like something out of The Lord of The Rings. I say it’s more like Deep Space 9.
Either way, we love it here. It’s beautiful in the garden and it’s delicious (recipe at the end of the post)
While I normally start cardoons from seeds, this year I was too lazy/too late/too swamped to start seeds, and so I bought 6 healthy seedlings at one of our local small family-run nurseries Morningside Farm & Nursery. They have a super nice section of herbs, succulent, tropicals and perennials. Morningside sells cardoon as an ornamental – perennial in zone 7 or lower. For us in the Nothern Virginia Piedmont, it’s a perennial if we have mild winters — which we have had for the last several years. Certainly cardoon is a very striking plant in the garden, with its statuesque presence (if grown well, it can reach 6 feet when in flower — the 2nd year), its large silvery felt-like leaves and its oversized thistle flowers (assuming you let it bloom). It IS a gorgeous plant. And gorgeousness is the reason most people will ever grow them for. But it’s also eminently edible: it’s an artichoke grown for its stem. When properly prepared, they do indeed taste of artichoke. The other artichoke, globe artichoke, is grown for its flower bud. Yep, you are eating a thistle bud when you eat an artichoke!
Plant them out at the same time the morels emerge. I planted them in a sunny bed thoroughly amended with manure. Within a few weeks, mice had eaten the roots of 3 of them, killing the plants. Gritting my teeth, I replaced them with Swiss chard. Cardoons need space, at least 3 feet between plants (4 feet better) so they can develop properly.
The remaining 3 plants survived and did quite well, especially as I made sure to water them on a regular basis. And give them more compost several times throughout the summer. As I am growing them to eat their stems, I want to make sure they produce lots of fat tender stems! A rich soil and regular watering will encourage them to do so.
In early October, on a dry sunny day, I securely pound a very stout stake next to each cardoon, and then wrap the plant to blanch its stems. A used feed bag is just perfect for the task. It can be a messy job as some cultivars of cardoon still have small thorns on the edges of their leaves and on their stem – like a thistle! Those from Morningside Nursery, did not, so the bundling the cardoon was much easier this year. And garden blanching (i.e. depriving the plant – here the stems- of sunlight) is necessary for tender non-bitter stems. Skip that step, and your cardoons will be inedibly bitter.
And yes, staking is also necessary, as the wind can easily knock the plant down easily now that it’s no longer balanced.
I wait at least 3 weeks before harvesting the plant, cutting it down at soil level. And before a hard frost. While the plant can take a couple of light frosts, and survive hard frost, its edibility diminishes. Do note: if you cut the plant off, there will not be any flowers nor seeds the following year.
Cardoon now needs to be kitchen-blanched. If I cannot process the carddon right away, I just cut and discard the leaf tops, wrap the cardoon and put it in the fridge for a few days. But a cardoon plant takes a lot of space so it’s best you plan to process it just after harvesting.
You need to work fast: cardoon stems oxidize rapidly once cut. So I set a big pot of water to almost boiling, before I start trimming. I discard any really damaged stems or any that have started to rot. I trim off and discard any remaining leaves keeping as much of the stems as possible. I wash the stems well to remove any debris or worms that may have accumulated inside the slightly grooved stems. The plants bought at Morningside did not have any thorns… but those I grew in the past did. So watch out and wear gloves if needed. And pare the stems to remove those torns as well as any strings.
I cut the stems into 1 or 2-inch pieces and drop them immediately in the almost-boiling water. Don’t wait till you have a big pile. Drop the pieces in as soon as cut. Some people put lemon juice in the water to help preventing oxidation, and that’s fine too, especially if your water in not almost boiling.
Once all the cut stems are in the pot, bring the water boil and blanch for 5 minutes. Drain. Cardoons can now be frozen for later use, refrigerated for a few days or used right away. Gratins, tagines and other Meditearrenan dishes are your reward.
I most often prepare it into a gratin.
Gratin #1: Generously butter a gratin dish, arrange the pre-cooked cardoons, and smother in a fairly thick bechamel. Bake at 375-400F until the top browns to your liking, 30 to 40 minutes.
Gratin #2: arrange the precooked cardoon in a gratin dish with grated Gruyère. Pour heavy cream over, sprinkle with a little Gruyère. Bake at 375-400F until the top browns to your liking, 30 to 40 minutes. Adjust oven down if it browns too fast