Cardoons: The Farm's Mystery Vegetable

By Anastatia Curley
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Photo by Anastatia Curley

When children visit the Yale Farm, one of the games I like to play with them is "guess this vegetable!" Kids, and many adults, used to finding tomatoes wrapped in cellophane and supermarket displays of potatoes, are entranced when they learn how different vegetables look growing in the ground.

The great thing about "guess this vegetable" is that, like any good game, it has levels of difficulty. Tomatoes and lettuce are easy. But could you identify the leaves of a potato plant? Or tell how they look different from sweet potato leaves? And my current favorite Yale Farm vegetable, the real stumper: could you name the plant that's tall and spiny and looks like only a donkey would want to eat it?

Cardoons are an odd, mysterious, difficult-looking plant. Right now, after a long season of growth, ours are over six feet tall, crowned with spiny flowers. Earlier this summer, our interns wrapped the bottom foot or so of each of the plants in newspaper, to blanch the stems. Above their newspaper jackets, they flaunt four feet or so of long, dramatic, prickly-looking leaves, from which emerge those spiky flowers.

Because we're an educational garden, we grow cardoons mostly so that we can tell their story.

Especially now that they're the height of a tall man, there's something a little bit human--or at least scarecrow-like--about them; their height makes them lean over, their strange, artichoke-like flowers bending towards one another. I find this oddly touching.

A little research reveals that while cardoons were a common sight in colonial Americans' vegetable gardens, for reasons no one seems able to explain they've fallen out of favor since then. They're still fairly common in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, but they are harder to find in the U.S.

The truth is, cardoons aren't a terribly practical plant--they need a long, cool but not cold growing season (likely why their popularity continues in Mediterranean climates) and a fair amount of space. Because we're an educational garden, we grow them mostly so that we can tell their story.

They're artichoke cousins, and while I've read that cardoon flowers can be eaten in much the same way that artichokes can, the ones I've seen look forbiddingly spiny. The part that's commonly eaten is the stem of the cardoon--in other words, of the six feet of our cardoon plants, only the bottom foot or so will be edible. We wrap that part in newspaper because blanching it--preventing it from photosynthesizing--keeps it tender and white.

Perhaps the reason I've fallen in love with our cardoons is their unexpectedness: the ones in the garden now are actually last year's cardoons, which mysteriously managed to survive a New England winter. That's why they're so tall, and why we're not sure how they'll taste. Last year's cardoons were delicious, though, with a flavor something like artichokes.

If you can find them in a farmers' market near you, you can braise them, or blanch them and serve them with a vinaigrette, or puree them to make soup. Blanched, they might make a lovely topping for bruschetta, with some lemon and herbs. Or try this simple recipe, adopted from Chez Panisse.

(A side note on cardoons: they are also one of the few vegetable materials--thistles are another--that can curdle milk. In other words, you can use cardoons instead of rennet in the cheesemaking process. Since rennet is made out of the stomachs of cows, goats, or sheep, using cardoons or thistles instead is the only way to make a truly vegetarian cheese. In Portugal and Spain, cardoons are used to make sheep and goats milk cheeses--they can't be used with cows milk, as they turn it bitter.)

Recipes that use cardoons
Cardoons With Almond Sauce
Cardoons With Anchovy Vinaigrette

For more on how Europeans use cardoons, click here.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2009/07/cardoons-the-farms-mystery-vegetable/21528/