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Curious cardoon

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10/06/2007
Curious cardoon

I can't help it.  I have an affinity for oddball vegetables.  Liking the unusual is an essential thread of my personality.  You could call me the Anti-Lemming.  If everyone's doing it, I'm not interested.  But that's only part of the reason I love cardoon.  Imagine a vegetable that tastes like an artichoke, only more so--and only there's more of it.  That's cardoon.

I know most of you will probably never try cardoon.  Not being in the habit of eating thistle plants, that is.  Because cardoon (Cynara cardunculus), like artichoke, is basically a thistle.  Cardoon in its wild or near-wild state is viciously thorny, with deeply divided, feathery leaves.  And even tame varieties often retain prickles at the tips of their leaf serrations.  Then there's the fact that you have to cut down the entire, absolutely gorgeous plant in order to eat it.  And that only after you've staked, bundled, and blanched it for a couple of weeks.  Only then will you have earned the right to eat its succulent leaf stems in a creamy gratin or a savory tagine.  There's no question that cardoon is a vegetable for passionate gourmet gardeners.

But if all this has you ready to click away to another page, wait!  Even if you never eat cardoon, you should still grow it for its beauty.  Attaining 3 to 6 feet in height, and nearly that in spread, cardoon is a statuesque plant, stoutly perennial in  Zones 7b-10 and  a bit more short-lived the farther north you take it, until it becomes an annual around Zone  5a. It has gigantic, deeply toothed, felted silver leaves--simply some of the most beautiful foliage in the garden.  It will bloom--if you let it--the second year from planting, with flowers resembling those of artichokes, but much smaller and more numerous.  The lavender-blue blossoms are highly attractive to butterflies, and finches will gorge themselves on the large seeds that follow.  But to keep the plant's foliage at its most luxuriant, remove the flower stalks as soon as they appear.  Either way, cardoon is a superlative accent in the perennial border, setting off everything around it.

Okay, those of you who have no interest in cultivating cardoon as a vegetable can now click elsewhere.  Diehard potagistes, read on. 

Cardoon is super-easy to start from seed and germinates in less than a week.  Start it indoors at least 8 weeks before your frost free date, transplanting it to larger pots if necessary before setting out.  If you're gardening in Zone 4 or 5, you should start cardoon as early as mid-February in order to have big plants to set out when danger of frost is past.  That way you'll have plants husky enough to harvest just before killing frost.

Cardoon has a taproot, and needs deep, rich soil.  Amend with a minimum of 10 pounds of rotted manure or compost per square yard.  And plant in full sun, in the most sheltered location possible in northernmost zones.  In spite of its appearance, cardoon likes plenty of water (but not soggy, poorly drained soil).  Irrigate frequently and deeply, and feed from time to time with manure or nettle tea (see "Plants to the rescue of plants" in Trucs d'Antan').  The more you feed and water your cardoon, the tenderer it will be when you harvest it.

Space your cardoon plants at least 3 feet apart to give them plenty of room to develop.  In the early part of the season, you can interplant them with radishes, spinach, or lettuces--provided you've amended the soil lavishly enough to provide for all concerned.  In spring and early summer, cardoon will grow slowly.  But as the days heat up, , cardoon bulks up, thrusting out its big, dramatic leaves.  Remember, it's the stems of these leaves you're planning to eat.  At or soon after planting time, insert a stout stake next to each plant.  These stakes will come into play at blanching time.  staked cardoon

Blanching--depriving the plant of light to prevent chlorophyll from functioning--turns the blanched parts of the plant (in this case the leaf stems) tender and removes bitterness.  Blanching is something most gardeners don't like to bother with anymore.  But there's no denying it's a technique that yields superior celery, endives and escaroles, dandelion greens, and of course, cauliflowers.  In order to enjoy eating your cardoons, you don't have a choice.  Blanch you must or they will be inedibly bitter.

The moment to begin blanching your cardoon arrives sometime in September in northern zones, or in October in Zones 7-10.   Wait until afternoon of a sunny day when the leaves of your cardoon are thoroughly dry.  (Moisture on the bundled leaves can cause them to rot.)  Using a  stout twine, gather and tie up the leaves at three intervals along their length, including the stake in your bundling.  Wear gloves to do this if you've grown a spiny variety  (see below). Once the plants are tied up like this, they are prone to falling over in the wind, which is the reason for the stake.  If you haven't staked them, hill the plants up with earth after you have wrapped them to a height of 12" to stabilize them.
wrapped cardoon
Back in the 18th century, Olivier de Serres recommended covering your cardoons with empty bee hives, filled with a mixture of dry manure and straw and covered to keep out rain.  You don't have several empty antique bee hives lying around?  Well, never mind.  Some stout cardboard--probably available at any recycling center--will do handily.  Simply wrap a layer of corrugated cardboard or heavy brown wrapping paper around your bundled cardoons, tying it in place with twin.  It's okay for a tuft of leaf tips to protrude at the top.  (Never use plastic to blanch your plants; it will cause them to heat up and rot.)Cardoon in garden
In Zones 7 and southward, I recommend that you stagger the blanching of your cardoons over a period of several weeks to prolong the harvest.  Farther north, you can blanch the first few plants, then dig up the remaining ones jwhen a freeze threatens, keeping some earth around their roots. Place them in a dark basement or cellar where they will blanch out slowly, providing cardoon dishes up until and even after Christmas.  After two to three weeks of blanching, you can begin harvesting your cardoons.  Cut them slightly below the soil line.

Cardoon Italian marketIn Italy, cardoons are lodged over and covered with earth to blanch them,. giving the harvested cardoons a characteristic distorted form.

Named varieties of cardoon seed may be hard to come by in the United States, where eating cardoon is practically unheard of outside a few ethnic communities.  You can purchase the spineless variety 'Plein blanc inerme' on this website.  The best-tasting variety is the spiny 'Epineux Argenté de Plainpalais,' a Swiss variety much cultivated around Geneva (which is after all not far from Lyon, France's cardoon afficianado zone.  'Vert de Vaulx' has delicate stems and is the hardiest variety.

In Provence, a gratin of cardoons is a traditional part of the Christmas Eve feast.  The blanched cardoon stems are slowly baked in a bechamel sauce flavored with soaked, salt-packed anchovies under a shower of bread crumbs.    Today, the region of Lyon remains the stronghold of cardoon growing and appreciation in France.
chefchouen woman cardoon
Cardoon is greatly appreciated in the rich cuisines of North Africa, where the harvest can continue all through the winter.  Walk through a Moroccan Medina in cardoon season and you're sure to see women sitting on their stoops paring cardoons and dropping them into a bucket of water.  Cardoon features as a key ingredient in many fragrant tagines.

To prepare cardoons, first put on a pair of gloves.  Like artichokes, cardoons oxidize (turn brown) rapidly once cut, and their juice will stain your hands.  Also, be careful if you are handling a thorny variety.  Prepare a big bowl of well-acidulated water.  First, discard any outer leaf stems that are damaged or coriaceous.  Then remove the leaves from the thick succulent leaf stems, and pare them of their epidermis and any strings.  Cut them into 2-3-inch pieces and drop them immediately into the acidulated water.  When you get down to the tender heart, simply cut it in fourths lengthwise.

To pre-cook cardoons prior to putting them in a gratin or tagine, stir 2 tablespoons  white flour into a bit of cold water until smooth.  Then dilute this into 3 quarts of cold water in a large casserole and season with salt and pepper.  Add the juice of a large lemon.  (This is called a blanc de cuisson in French.)  Bring to a boil, drop in the cardoons, and cook until tender.  The flour-water mix will keep the cardoons from oxidizing while they cook.  See Dans la cuisine for a classic cardoon gratin recipe.  See Paula Wolfert's immortal classic Couscous and other good foods of Morocco, for other fabulous ways to savor cardoon.  Bon appetit!




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