Homeyer: Growing and eating cardoon

Cardoon is a big, leafy plant.

Cardoon is a big, leafy plant. Henry Homeyer—For the Concord Monitor

Cardoon with one of my shovels for a size comparison.

Cardoon with one of my shovels for a size comparison. Henry Homeyer / For the Concord Monitor

Cardoon blossoms are like thistles.

Cardoon blossoms are like thistles. Henry Homeyer / For the Concord Monitor

Published: 02-03-2024 10:00 AM

Modified: 02-15-2024 5:13 PM

Most years I start some onion seeds and perhaps a few artichokes indoors n February; this year I will also start some cardoon seeds at the same time. Cardoon, which is a lovely looking plant related to artichokes, is a delicious vegetable, too.

Artichokes and cardoon are in the thistle family, and closely related. With artichokes, we eat the flower bud before it matures. The edible part of cardoon is the midrib of the long leaves, much as we eat the stalks of celery. But cardoon stalks are eaten cooked, not raw.

Since cardoon plants are rarely sold at garden centers, you may wish to buy some seeds now and plant them indoors in February. It grows best in full sun with rich soil and plenty of moisture. Like artichokes, cardoon seems to have few pests or diseases. It is also a lovely decorative plant in the flower garden. It is a big plant that is vertical in growth habit and has silver-green leaves with toothed edges. You may need to stake it to keep it from encroaching on nearby plants.

Towards the end of the growing season and before it flowers, you must blanch the leaves before eating them. Blanch in this use means depriving them of light, not steaming them. In the Piedmont district of Italy (in the north-west part, near Turin) farmers do this by digging up cardoon before the first frost in the fall. They lay it in a trench and cover with soil for 2 weeks to blanch it and give it a bittersweet flavor. Easier yet, according to the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog, you can blanch the plants by wrapping them with several layers of newspapers (avoid colored print), enough to keep out the light. You don’t dig them up to do that. By the way, I find I always learn something when I read the Johnny’s catalog. The variety I ordered from Johnny’s Seeds is called “Porto Spineless.”

Cardoon is in the thistle family, and if you don’t harvest the leaves it will eventually produce gorgeous purple flowers like those you see on wild thistle plants. I have read that if you are in Zone 6 or warmer, it will survive the winter just like a perennial flower, just cut it back, leaving the stubs of leaves at 10 inches.

In Italy there is a cardoon dish called “bagna cauda.” It is to the people of the Piedmont what haggis is to the Scots. If you meet someone you like, you invite them over for a bagna cauda - which translates loosely as “hot bath.” But cardoon goes in the bath, not people.

An evening with bagna cauda features a container of hot olive oil –an inch or two deep- with a whole head of thinly sliced garlic and a can or two of anchovies in it. It is brought to a simmer and kept simmering with a hot plate or flame. Like fondue, you spear food and cook it in the hot oil – the midribs are cut into 1 inch pieces for cooking. But the one key ingredient is always cardoon - Yes, there can be radishes, cubes of beef, celery and perhaps peppers, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms or fennel. But without cardoon, it is not a proper bagna cauda. It is good to add an occasional splash of red wine in the pot to keep the garlic and anchovies from burning. You need loaves of good French bread that you tear - not slice - into pieces and use to catch any drips of oil.

For the less adventurous and the garlic adverse, here is the recipe I adapted from Ellen Ogden’s wonderful cookbook, “From the Cook’s Garden”:

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1 pound cardoon stalks (1 plant), rinsed clean and towel dried

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

1 cup milk, heated

½ cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese

¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese

¼ cup dried bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375, and warm an 8 x 11 inch baking dish, lightly buttered. Prepare midribs of leaves by cutting off the leaf portion, and cutting into 4-inch pieces. Cook the cardoon by boiling in lightly salted water for 10 minutes, or until tender. Melt butter and whisk in flour, cooking for two minutes. Gradually whisk in milk and bring to simmer. Remove from heat and stir in Cheddar cheese. Add salt and pepper to taste. Spread bottom of baking dish with a little sauce, arrange half the stalks in dish, and cover with sauce and half the Parmesan cheese. Repeat and sprinkle with bread crumbs. Bake until top is lightly brown, about 20 minutes.

As much as I love artichokes, you really only get a few tablespoons of food from a plant that takes up a two or three-foot square section of garden. Cardoon has a similar flavor, but you get enough from one plant to serve as a side dish for four people. And because it is so vertical, it takes up less space. It is a gorgeous foliage plant that can get to be 3-4 feet tall, so you can plant it in either the flower garden or the vegetable garden.

Part of the fun of gardening, for me, is in the eating. Fresh is better than store-bought. And for cardoon, growing your own is probably the only way to have some. So if you plan to start your own tomato seedlings indoors in April, why not start early with some cardoon?

Henry is the author of 4 gardening books. Reach him by e-mail at henry.homeyer@comcast.net. This winter his column will appear just once a month.