Cardoons are exotic, hard to find vegetables. Cardoons take their name from the French word chardon, which comes from the Latin carduus, meaning thistle. Once described as celery on steroids, cardoons are very similar to artichokes.
The stalks of cardoons are ribbed and can grow up to around 22 inches (55 cm) long, and the color can range from white to a pale green. The vegetable has a flowering head, and its appearance is a cross between a thistle and an artichoke. However, the flower buds of the cardoon cannot be eaten.
Cardoons are winter vegetables that can continue growing into the spring. However, they are primarily cold weather vegetables, and the spring warmth affects their taste. Warm weather will make the cardoon taste bitter.
The best time to eat cardoons is when they are young and tender. You can eat them raw when young, but if the stalks are older, you will need to cook them first. Cardoons can also be used in dips, sauces, stews, salads, or even as breaded starters.
There are two varieties of cardoon. The lunghi has long, straight stalks, and the gobbi has curved or bent stalks. The cardoon's origins are hazy, but the vegetable is thought to have originated in Italy, Spain, and Africa. It reached North America via England. Cardoons were recorded as being eaten in ancient Rome and Greece as a delicacy.
Cooking cardoons is a simple process. Simply cut off the base and leaves, then cut the stalks into pieces. Cardoons lose their color very quickly once subjected to air, so place the stalks in vinegar laced water. Boil the stalks for around 20 minutes until tender, adding salt to the water to remove any bitterness. Then simply drain, and peel off the surface of the stalks.
You can add precooked cardoons to a variety of dishes. They have a peppery flavor and are great mixed with mushrooms as a starter. Think of spicy Mediterranean recipes that are perfect for a cold winter night.
Cardoons are a largely undiscovered vegetable and quite difficult to find in supermarkets, but they are well used by chefs and restaurateurs who are first in line to grab them when they become available. Cardoons are becoming more popular as various varieties of the vegetable are grown. These include larger versions, such as Gigante di Romagna and Plein Blanc Inerma Ameliora.