Sunday, October 10, 2010
Note: There is an F-bomb in this post. You were warned.
Cardoons! Limited supply! Only take some if you can experiment with them and report back! So said the CSA announcement this week. Cardoons! I’d heard of them and been hoping for years to try them.
According to a British gardening book that I have somewhere in my house but can no longer find, cardoons are a tall and dramatic-looking member of the thistle family, a relative of artichokes, and a back-of-the-garden oddity. It used to be a common vegetable but fell out of favor sometime before the invention of the combustion engine. I’d filed the bit of information away in case I ever met this plant. And now, thanks to Harmony Valley, it was staring me in the face!
Cardoon looks like celery crossed with an iguana. It is flocked with grayish-green fuzz....
....and studded with quarter-inch spines. It’s as if aliens planted a Jurassic-era garden; or some mild-mannered vegetable got blasted with gamma rays and then got pissed off. Wow! This was going to be so cool!
A little checking around revealed that cardoon should be de-leafed, de-thorned, and cleaned of tough strings; then boiled for fifteen minutes to an hour. It can then be made into things like crudités or salads. Joy of Cooking suggested it might taste like artichoke. I decided on a gratine. This was going to be great! I’d serve it as a surprise treat to Saturday’s dinner guests.
As I prepared the cardoons, excitement soured into doubt. These stalks were awfully big and stringy. That gray bloom turned out to be a layer that sometimes peeled off like onionskin. I cut them into the two-inch lengths that Joy suggested and set them to boil in water spiked with salt and lemon juice.
Beth arrived to help with dinner preparations. “What can I do?” she asked. “Oh,” I tossed back breezily, “how about if you make the Mornay sauce?” I rattled off the directions over my shoulder as I poked the boiling cardoons with a spoon. “Like this?” she asked, some minutes later. I looked into the pan. Beth had made a textbook sauce. It was perfectly smooth, white, and uniform. The sides of the pan weren’t even dirty. Damn!
I drained the cardoons. They looked as if they had lost an election of some sort, or perhaps as if they owed money to the Mob.
I poured Beth’s beautiful sauce into a buttered dish and started laying cardoon pieces in, grumbling all the while. “You don’t sound too confident. You’re going to serve this to guests?” Beth demanded. So, drums rolling, I tasted a cardoon.
A high note of baking soda sang above a base taste of overcooked silage, followed by a convulsive sourness. “Oh, try this,” I gasped. “No way,” said Beth, backing away. I snatched the pieces out of the Mornay, horrified that they would taint it. And then I looked down at them, all sauce-smeared in the colander.
I never until this day met a vegetable I didn’t like. And I hate to waste anything. I screwed my courage to the sticking point and picked up one of the sauced pieces. This one was tenderer. The silky Mornay smoothed away most of the bitterness. The flavor and texture were like a mild, soft artichoke heart. I saw how this might have worked: tender inner stalks broiled up with sauce and cheese could have made a not too unattractive presentation, and they might even approach enjoyable.
But you know what? Fuck it. Cardoons are a lot of work for something only a little bit delicious. And a lot of people, my guests included, don’t even like artichoke. I dumped the whole mess straight in the trash. Sorry, cardoons.
I can see why people stopped eating these things. What I can’t see is why anyone ever decided to eat this in the first place. Maybe some feudal peasant saw her donkey munching a roadside thistle and shoved him out of the way to grab it for herself. Maybe when the choices were cardoons or nothing, cardoons were worth the fuss.
Even though I didn’t like them, I’m thankful to Harmony Valley for the opportunity to try cardoons. It had been a longtime dream, and now I can mark it up as a lifetime achievement.
Don’t try this at home
Here’s what I was going to do, had my initial bite not been so shatteringly unpleasant.
1 lb de-thorned, de-leafed, de-stringed cardoon stalks, cut in 2" pieces
2 T lemon juice
1 t salt
2 T butter
2 T flour
1½ c whole milk at room temperature
¾ c grated Swiss cheese, divided in half
Put the cardoon pieces in a pot with 8 cups of water, the lemon and salt. Boil for 15 to 20 minutes and drain.
Meanwhile, melt the butter in a saucepan and whisk in the flour. Whisk until very smooth. Add the milk, whisking constantly to avoid lumps. Whisk and whisk over medium heat until the sauce thickens. Take it off the heat and whisk in half the cheese.
Butter a glass or ceramic baking dish and pour in half the sauce. Lay the cardoon pieces in the sauce, overlapping each other slightly, and cover them with the rest of the sauce. Sprinkle with the remaining cheese. Bake in a 375° oven until the sauce is bubbly and the cheese is toasty and just browned, about 20 minutes.