Photo by tvol/FlickrCC
Years ago, long before I had any notion I'd eventually make my home in Spain, my mother and I made a rather inauspicious trip through Andalusia. It was winter and the rain was unrelenting, though the fog did occasionally lift just enough for us to glimpse all the sights we weren't seeing. My mother got sick, none of the pensions where we stayed had any sort of heating, and we quickly tired of the rancid ham and suspicious shellfish our clumsy restaurant-finding skills earned us. If you know what you're doing even just a little bit, you can eat some of the finest meals of your life in the cheap taverns of Andalusia. But we didn't know what we were doing, and we were miserable.
And then, rolling into Cordoba, we spied a little vegetarian restaurant. "Cult of ham be damned," we said. "Let's eat some vegetables!" I wish I had taken note of that little restaurant's name in order to give them the credit they deserve, but how could I have known I would eventually write for a food magazine? I don't know if it was very wonderful or if we were very hungry, but that meal stuck in my memory as few others have. Especially the cardoons.
When we saw cardo on the menu, we asked the waiter in halting Spanish what it might be. Waving his hands (long stem, furry leaves, strong fibers), he gamely tried to explain but seeing our perplexity went into the kitchen for a Spanish-English dictionary. "Cardoons," it said. Who ever heard of a cardoon? "Cardoon" was like an absurdist Anglicization of cardo, both equally unheard of, a joke to catch unwitting tourists. So, of course, we ordered some.
And oh! What a delicious thing! Cardoons in almond sauce, rich and soft! Vaguely like an artichoke in taste but with more consistency, like celery in texture but with a deeper flavor.
In the years since, whenever I come across cardo, I think of that first discovery. Turns out it's a common and inexpensive winter vegetable in much of Andalusia and Navarra, as well as in Italy and all over the north of Morocco. In Spain, it's often made in almond sauce, especially at Christmas: a very simple and excellent recipe. And now that the cardoon is no longer a total stranger to American shores, if you have a good farmers' market you may even be able to make it at home.
Now if you look online for recipes, you will find many that propose a bechamel laced with almonds. It's tasty, but don't be misled. It's not the real thing, it's a way to save on expensive almonds. Splurge a little, buy some almonds, do it right.
Recipe: Cardoons With Almond Sauce
• One bunch of cardoons
• One large onion, finely chopped
• One cup of raw almonds
• One to two cups of dry white wine
• Two slices of stale French bread
• One tablespoon of chopped parsley
To prepare the cardoons, cut off the rough ends and peel away the tough fibers. Remove as many as you have the patience to, rub with lemon to avoid discoloring, then cut into two-inch pieces. Boil these in salt water with a little lemon juice until tender. Some people boil the cardoons twice, changing the water, in order to remove any possible bitterness. I frankly can't be bothered to do so, but you decide.
Drain the cardoons and set them aside.
Fry the almonds in a little olive oil until toasted--taking care not to let them burn--and set aside. Do the same with the slices of bread: fry until golden and set aside. Then do yet again the same with the chopped onion: fry until it just begins to brown. Mix the onion, almonds and bread and either pound them in a mortar or chop them in a food processor. Return this mass to the pan with a little oil over low heat. Add the wine gradually and stir as you would a bechamel until it thickens. Then add cardoons and allow them to heat in the sauce. Salt to taste and sprinkle with parsley. Serve hot as a first course or as a side to some hearty meat.
This same sauce is also excellent with braised rabbit (some add a little cinnamon while it is thickening). This is typical of the mountainous central part of Andalusia...but that's a story for another day.