How to grow cardoons, closely related to the artichoke

Avorio cardoon
Avorio cardoon (Sunrise Seeds)
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By Barbara Damrosch
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, December 17, 2009

In travel there is adventure tourism. In athletics there are extreme sports. And in gardening there are extreme adventure crops such as the cardoon, a large, prickly plant closely related to the artichoke and the thistle. I took the challenge this past summer, a new experience, since I had grown only the cut-flower type that bears luminous blue thistlelike blooms. This time I was after food.

The cardoons I had eaten years ago in Italy were delicious: large celery-like stalks with an artichoke flavor. I chose a culinary variety called Avorio from John Scheepers (http://www.kitchengardenseeds.com), starting the seeds indoors 10 weeks before the last expected frost. Six transplants went out about the time I set out tomatoes, three feet apart in fertile soil. They grew just like artichokes -- magnificent plants with spiky, silvery leaves -- and were the superstars of the garden until four succumbed to voles. The remaining two required staking but held on. Then came the tricky part: blanching them. Just as the buried heart and petal bases of an artichoke bud are the only edible, non-bitter parts of the plant, so the stems of a cardoon must be blanched to tame their flavor, a matter of tying up the stems and wrapping the bottom foot or two in something to create darkness.

Standing before the first plant, I could see that we were equally matched in height, but it took many rounds of struggle before I managed to embrace the sprawling mass and secure even one piece of string. I found that severing a number of near-prostrate outer stems helped me gain access to the base. Finally, after tying the plant at several different heights, I was able to enclose it fairly tightly in a cardboard cylinder made from a liquor box. Since fall was mild this year, I'd waited until October to do my wrapping. Would it have been easier in August, with the plants a bit more compact? My hat was off to Italian farmers who grow cardoons all winter. That dearly remembered meal took place in February.

Four weeks later I felled my mummified monsters and was jubilant to find the inner stalks a ghostly, creamy white. Nibbled raw, they were disappointingly bitter although, to be fair, my palate is not a European one, which tends to find bitterness pleasant. After simmering some for a half-hour in a large pot of salted water, they became soft, with no bitterness -- but bland. A five-minute simmer in less water had a better result: crisper, slightly bitter stalks with that wonderful artichoke taste.

Expecting a crowd of 20 for a potluck dinner, I made my favorite dip for late fall, a hot, garlicky, buttery bagna cauda, spiked with anchovies, a cold-weather favorite in Italy's Piedmont region. I'd cut up the traditional accompaniments: raw fall vegetables such as fresh-dug baby turnips, fennel slices, little carrots -- and the cardoons. The hungry throng fell upon them, devoured them and exclaimed over them.

It had been a long trip up the mountain, but a successful first ascent.

Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer."


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