Ask a chef about cardoons, and chances are he or she will swoon over a fantastic meal in northern Italy.
"In the town of La Morra at a restaurant named Belvedere, they prepared a dish of baked cardoons topped with a fonduta of melted cheese and shaved white truffles," Jimmy Bradley, chef and owner of the beloved The Red Cat in NYC, says of a transcendent cardoon experience in Piedmont. "I still crave this dish."
Matthew Jennings of Boston's Townsman also recalls a springtime dish he ate in Piedmont: "creamed cardoon made with farm-fresh cream, braised cardoon and shaved cheese over the top."
But the memories aren't the only reason chefs love the tricky, prickly Mediterranean vegetables that look like large bunches of celery. "They bring an unexpected flavor profile," Chris Cosentino of meat-centric Cockscomb in San Francisco says. "They're reminiscent of artichokes but much more bitter. They're not commonly used in most restaurants, so there's something to be said about giving your guests the opportunity to try something new and unusual."
We're into the difficult vegetables, too, which are also known as artichoke thistles. Like a dozen roses, cardoons can be thorny: You have to pay close attention when you're prepping them—but the extra time and care it takes to cook them makes the finished dish even more delicious.
Kevin Adey, chef and co-owner of Faro in Brooklyn, tells us, "Make sure you peel them, wash them carefully and watch out for spikes." And trust us, he's right. We've got the knicks and cuts to prove it. But underneath the thorns lie fibrous satchels of edible gold. The only catch: You have to boil the cardoons to soften them before you can even think about baking or frying them.
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"Cardoons are very fibrous, so they need to be cooked down a lot and cooked properly," Jennings says. "My favorite method is braising them with lemon, fresh herbs and honey, or a rich chicken stock. Any brine that helps to break them down a little bit is great. Acid always helps." He sometimes even ferments the cardoons, kimchi-style, to tenderize them.
Because they're so often associated with Italian cuisine, our favorite way to cook them (see the recipe) is to boil them for an hour in a bright, acidic combination of water, lemon, white wine and thyme, then fry them Roman-style—as their artichoke brethren are often served. They're double breaded and hit with a squeeze of lemon and some freshly grated Parmesan.
The fried cardoons still maintain some of their bite, while bursting with lemony flavor. The next time you're served an artichoke, they'll have you asking, dude, where's my cardoon?