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Groundwork: The weird and wonderful cardoon

Everyone with a patch of land should grow a cardoon if only for the pleasure of saying its name. This decorative and edible thistle's name derives from a French word, but to me it sounds so Scottish (The thistle, fittingly, is the floral emblem of Scotland). The cardoon invites a phony Scottish brogue like that of Star Trek's Scotty. As you heap compost around the base of your cardoon you can shout excitedly, "I'm giving it all I've got, Cap'n!"

Cindy Brown at Green Spring Gardens in Northern Virginia gave it all she had the other day when she spent three hours preparing a dish of cardoon stems that became an unexpected hit.

More on that in a bit.

Recipe Included

The cardoon is closely related to the globe artichoke. Both have heavily cut, coarse and silvery leaves that are beautiful, and both perennial herbs produce huge, thistlelike flowers of the most vibrant cerulean blue. The cardoon's fleshy leaf stalks are edible, at least in theory, and I asked Cindy to come up with a recipe for them.

How do you cultivate cardoons?

Once established, the cardoon can be cut to the ground in summer for fresh fall growth like this. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

They are started indoors from seed in late January-early February, and put out into the garden in early May. You will need a sunny and free-draining location. Heavy wet soil, especially in winter, will kill them. They take two or three years to attain a real presence. The plants here at Green Spring are at least 6 years old. Don't expect a stalk harvest until they are robust and established, which takes three years.

Enjoy them for their flowers in summer, and then if they are looking tired, cut them to the ground for a flush of new growth in the autumn. Cindy always does that if she is harvesting the leaves for the table.

The preferred approach is to blanch the stalks (in a horticultural, not a culinary sense). By shielding them from the sun, the plant grows paler and presumably sweeter. Cindy wrapped a cardoon in burlap in late summer, but she says that was wrong; she should have covered the plant only two weeks before harvesting. Anyway, she made the dish at the bottom of this entry with unblanced (horticultural sense, again) leaf stalks, and it was really good.

We had a tasting at Green Spring with Cindy, other staff and volunteers, which was anticipated with a little trepidation. There were mutterings that it wouldn't be too delicious, and that I shouldn't get my hopes up. Apparently, several years ago, Cindy had produced a cardoon dish that was stringy and a little bitter.

However, her gratin was a success. The stems were neither stringy nor bitter, and while not overpowering in flavor, they had a mild artichoke-asparagus taste. Cindy says cardoons raised in California or France, less stressed by our extremes of climate, would be sweeter.

The leaf stalks have little spines that will seek to embed themselves in your fingers as you prepare them, so be warned. In fact I overheard this conversation between Cindy and her colleague Donna Stecker:

Donna: What did you do, wear gloves?
Cindy: No. Just yelled a lot.

Kale and fennel carry on, but the lettuce doesn't like frosts and winds. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The recent frosts are signaling the end of lettuce season, but other greens are soldiering on. The mustard greens, the Chinese greens, and the bulb fennel are loving the cold weather. The fall-sown fava beans are doing so well that the stems are now 12 inches or higher and threatening to outgrow their hoop tunnel. Cindy plans to cut them back, which will promote branching when they resume their growth in late winter.

With the long winter now advancing, one is tempted to utter the immortal words: Beam me up, Scotty! But we won't. We'll see out the season next week with the leek -- moving from Scotland to Wales, symbolically.

-- Adrian Higgins

Cardoon Gratin, Roman Style
8 side-dish servings

If you don't grow cardoon, finding a retailer that carries it can be a problem. It can be ordered online from

This is Cindy's favorite way of cooking cardoon, but it also can be fried, stewed or served as a dipping implement for bagna cauda, a warm Italian garlic-anchovy sauce.

Cardoons stalks have tiny spines on the edges, so be careful when handling. There aren’t many of them, but they can be annoyingly painful.

MAKE AHEAD: The cardoons need to be trimmed, soaked, peeled and cooked for 1 hour before incorporating into the gratin.

Adapted from a Mario Batali recipe.

For the cardoons
5 pounds (about 12 stems) cardoons (see headnote)
2 lemons, cut in half

For the sauce
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
4 tablespoons flour
3 cups whole or low-fat milk
1 teaspoon salt
Several grindings of black pepper
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

For assembly
1 cup freshly grated pecorino fresco
1 cup fresh plain bread crumbs

For the cardoons: Carefully trim the top leaves and stalks so the remaining cardoons resemble a celery-size plant about 14 to 16 inches in length. Place all the stalks in a sink filled with water; soak for 15 minutes. (Cardoon stalks are covered with a layer of very fine fuzz. The fuzz is easier to remove if the stalks soak in water for a bit.)

Use a paring knife to peel the outer fibrous ribs, the white fuzz and the cellophane-like skin.

Fill a large pot with about 10 cups of water (so that it is two-thirds to three-quarters full). Squeeze the lemons into the water, then toss in the spent lemon halves.

Cut each peeled cardoon into pieces 5 to 6 inches in length, then add to the pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook uncovered for 1 hour, until tender. Drain and rinse the pieces.

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have ready a large oven-proof casserole (about the size of a 13-by-9-inch baking pan).

For the sauce: Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, then add the flour and stir to form a smooth roux. Cook for 6 to 7 minutes, until light golden brown, then whisk in 1 cup of the milk at a time, stirring continuously until the mixture is very smooth. Once it starts bubbling at the edges, cook for 10 minutes, stirring often, then remove from the heat. Add the salt, pepper and nutmeg; mix well.

To assemble: Arrange the cooked cardoon pieces in a compact layer in the casserole, then cover with 2 cups of the sauce, reserving any remaining sauce for another use. Sprinkle with the grated cheese and crumbs. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until dark golden brown and very bubbly. Serve warm.

Per serving (using whole milk): 226 calories, 10 g protein, 17 g carbohydrates, 13 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 42 mg cholesterol, 568 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 5 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  December 14, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork, cardoons  
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Cardoons grow well in Italy, particularly in Abruzzo, where they are used in many dishes. Diced, blanched cardoons are added to homemade broth, along with beaten eggs and cheese for a nourishing soup. They are also served battered and fried, braised, and sauteed. Thanks for the gratin recipe; it sounds delicious.

Posted by: Domenica1 | December 14, 2009 8:45 AM | Report abuse

It's good to hear that someone's managed to make local cardoons edible--and the gratin does indeed look great. I failed misterably last week ( with a batch from the Farmers' Market that were really stringy and so wrenchingly bitter my braise and broken vinaigrette couldn't cope. Hopefully, I'll get another shot with a batch that weren't totally past their prime.

Posted by: PFLuke | December 14, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

As the first poster said, cardoons are well known and widely used in the cuisne of Italy, not Scotland. Next time do your research instead of trying to be cutesy.

Posted by: Sam888 | December 14, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

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