If you don't grow cardoon, finding it can be a problem. It can be ordered online from www.melissas.com.
This is Cynthia Brown's favorite way of cooking cardoon, but it also can be fried, stewed or served as a dipping implement for bagna cauda, a warm Italian garlic-anchovy sauce. Cardoons stalks have tiny spines on the edges, so be careful when handling. There aren't many of them, but they can be annoyingly painful.
Make Ahead: The cardoons need to be trimmed, soaked, peeled and cooked for 1 hour before incorporating into the gratin.
- For the cardoons
- 5 pounds (about 12 stems) cardoons (see headnote)
- 2 lemons, cut in half
- For the sauce
- 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 4 tablespoons flour
- 3 cups whole or low-fat milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Several grindings of black pepper
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- For assembly
- 1 cup freshly grated pecorino fresco
- 1 cup fresh plain bread crumbs
For the cardoons: Carefully trim the top leaves and stalks so the remaining cardoons resemble a celery-size plant about-- to 16 inches in length. Place all the stalks in a sink filled with water; soak for 15 minutes. (Cardoon stalks are covered with a layer of very fine fuzz. The fuzz is easier to remove if the stalks soak in water for a bit.)
Use a paring knife to peel the outer fibrous ribs, the white fuzz and the cellophane-like skin.
Fill a large pot with about 10 cups of water (so that it is two-thirds to three-quarters full). Squeeze the lemons into the water, then toss in the spent lemon halves.
Cut each peeled cardoon into pieces 5 to 6 inches in length, then add to the pot. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and cook uncovered for 1 hour, until tender. Drain and rinse the pieces.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Have ready a large oven-proof casserole (about the size of a 13-by-9-inch baking pan).
For the sauce: Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat, then add the flour and stir to form a smooth roux. Cook for 6 to 7 minutes, until light golden brown, then whisk in 1 cup of the milk at a time, stirring continuously until the mixture is very smooth. Once it starts bubbling at the edges, cook for 10 minutes, stirring often, then remove from the heat. Add the salt, pepper and nutmeg; mix well.
To assemble: Arrange the cooked cardoon pieces in a compact layer in the casserole, then cover with 2 cups of the sauce. Sprinkle with the grated cheese and crumbs. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until dark golden brown and very bubbly. Serve warm.
Adapted from a Mario Batali recipe by Cynthia A. Brown, assistant director at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.
Tested by Cynthia A. Brown.
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