Several weeks ago we were expecting a big snow storm (it dropped a foot of snow) and the temperatures were going to plummet, so it was time to tuck in the yard for the winter. There is something sad about the end of the harvest, yet it is satisfying that we are able to continue to eat some of what comes from the yard through the early winter months. My husband and son dug a trench and buried the fig tree. They covered the young blueberry bushes and trimmed the fennel. We also harvested the concord grapes, a hundred parsnips, some carrots, and one of my favorites – the cardoons. For those unfamiliar with the cardoon it is a Mediterranean plant in the thistle family. Italians and French cook with it as well North Africans and Middle Easterners. It has green silvery leaves, is a lovely ornamental plant, and, when harvested, looks like celery stalks and tastes like an artichoke. It can be used in soups, stews, salads, as a side dish in a bechamel and/or cheese sauce, and also breaded and fried.
The first time I had cardoons was during my teen years at my Uncle Frank and Aunt Fran’s on Christmas Eve. They had some friends who had a summer home in upstate New York (near Ithaca) and harvested wild cardoons on their property. Each season they brought a generous supply to Aunt Fran. She would clean, chop, and boil the cardoons and freeze them. Then on Christmas Eve she breaded and fried them. They were slightly bitter and so delicious I wanted to eat an entire batch, but exercised self-control because there were others in the family who adored them as much as I did.
When we lived in upstate New York, Wegmans grocery store carried the domestic variety of cardoons during the fall and early winter months, but once we moved West I no longer had access. A few years ago I was craving cardoons, so my husband planted some seeds and we have enjoyed them ever since. My husband has learned to blanch the stalks by wrapping them for a few weeks before the fall harvest. We had a particularly nice crop this year. The domestic variety does not have the same bitter edge as the wild plant, but they are still tasty.
Cardoons are a bit of work, but worth the effort. They grow in bunches, so take the individual stalks and strip them of their leaves and string them as you would rhubarb. Then wash thoroughly and chop into 4-inch long and 2-inch wide pieces. They begin to brown as soon as they are cut so place them in cold water that has a lemon squeezed into it. The cardoons must stay in acidulated water while you cut and chop. Bring a 5-quart stockpot full of water to a boil. Add 1 tsp. kosher salt, then add cardoon pieces and boil on medium heat for 10 minutes or until just fork tender, but still retaining some resistance. Do not over cook; you don’t want them mushy. Drain cardoons and run under cold water to stop the cooking. Set on paper towels to dry. At this point you can place them in a ziplock quart bag to freeze or cook. We put about 15 pieces per bag to freeze, which will serve 4-5 as a side dish.
Breaded and Fried Cardoons
15 boiled cardoon pieces (1 1/2 – 2 lbs. bunch fresh cardoons)
4 large eggs
3 Tbsp. grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/8 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
2 c. Progresso Italian-style breadcrumbs
1/4 tsp. grated lemon zest (optional)
2 c. canola or olive oil for frying (you may need more depending on your pan size)
Begin by patting the cardoons dry. In a medium size bowl or pie plate crack the eggs and beat them with a fork until smooth. Add 2 Tbsp. cheese and the salt and pepper. Mix well. In a separate bowl place breadcrumbs and add the remaining 1 Tbsp. cheese and lemon zest if desired. Dip cardoon pieces in egg, then breadcrumbs. (I like to refrigerate them to help the breading stick if I have the time.) Heat a cast iron frying pan with oil. When hot add five to seven cardoon pieces. Fry for 2-3 minutes or until breadcrumbs are golden. Turn over and fry 2-3 minutes more. Remove to a paper towel-lined platter. Repeat with remaining cardoons. If you have extra egg and breadcrumb mix them together and form into a patty and fry for a little extra treat. Serve cardoons hot. Serves 4-5.
Newly Harvested Cardoons