While strolling through my little Farmers Market about fifteen years ago, I saw something in the distance that put a pep in my step and drew me in like a kitten to string. Standing in a bucket on the ground, a large bunch of tall, leafy stalks waved to me in the gentle breeze, their silver-grey blades beckoning me forward. It was as if the clouds had parted and a ray of sunshine beamed down upon this bucket. I swear I heard the angels singing. My eyes widened as I approached and the farmer behind the table grinned at me and said, “You must be Italian!” I gushed, “Cardoon! I haven’t seen it in years!” Not wanting to be greedy and knowing the prep work ahead of me, I tried to purchase only half of the bucket, but he insisted I take them all because they were hard to sell and he did not want to bring them home. I carefully hoisted them over my shoulder and headed home with dreams of cardoon dancing in my head.
Cardoon. Cardoons. Gardoon. Cardoni. These are all names of the same plant called “Jurassic Celery” by Farmer Lee Jones. It is actually a member of the thistle family and is closely related to artichokes. Originally grown throughout the Mediterranean from northern Africa to Portugal, it is now grown in California and Australia and is eaten in many ways. They self-seed – often becoming weeds when they overtake other crops. And they can be huge! Some plants grow to be eight feet tall and branch out at least six feet. They are tricky to grow in colder climates, but you will see them self-sowing and growing throughout the northeastern United States.
The plant is spiky, fibrous and bitter. As with artichokes, these take a bit of prepping before you can appreciate their heavenly flavor. Only the stalk is eaten and it takes a lot of work to get to the stalk. First, the prickly leaves are stripped off. Then, the long strings of fiber are carefully peeled away. All along the stalks – even after the leaves are stripped – are small spikes that do a number on a manicure so gloves are recommended. The stalks are then blanched in salted water with lemons to remove the bitterness and halt oxidation. Only then are they ready to be eaten. In my family, that means dredging in flour, eggs, seasoned breadcrumbs, and frying in olive oil. Think fried zucchini sticks that taste like artichoke and you’ll understand the effort is a worthy endeavor!
My Sicilian grandfather would keep a look out for them as he walked to and from work in New York City back in the 1920s-1950s. They would often grow in alleyways and he would keep an eye on them throughout the summer with hopes of harvesting in the fall. And he wasn’t the only one! There were many immigrants scouring the city for tastes of home! When the time was right, they would harvest as much as they could and then spend the day (sometimes days) cleaning, blanching and eating them. They were a cherished treat.
When our oldest son was in pre-school, we visited my family at a country home in upstate New York. Our foodie cousins were in town and showed up with a carload full of cardoon that they had spotted on the side of the highway on their drive up from the City. They had large garbage bags full of the plants which they happily hoisted into my aunt’s clean kitchen and then organized the cleaning party. Armed with knives, a dedicated army spent the day stripping the leaves and stalks while my poor aunties tried to deal with the insects that also took a ride in the garbage bags. We laughed, told stories, and enjoyed the day hunched over our tasks. And then we feasted! When we simply could eat no more, the rest of the cardoon stalks were put into plastic bags and frozen for another day. For my husband, this was his first taste of cardoon and yet another introduction to the food-obsessed family he had married into.
I’ve tried growing cardoon in my gardens throughout the years with mixed results. One year, they were so bitter that they were pretty much inedible. It was a new garden and I was struggling with building good soil and a reliable water source; the plants were stressed. Other years, a late Spring freeze would wipe them out. I didn’t always have the space because they really are huge plants. This year, I planted them along the back border (along with cucuzzi – another Italian vegetable) and they got off to a great start … and then the infamous Memorial Day hail storm decimated them and turned the young stalks to mush. We replanted the tomatoes, peppers and eggplants with plant-starts from the nursery but did not bother with seeds because it was so late in the season and the triple-digit temps were just around the corner. Most of the hail-damaged plants revived – including the cardoon! Unfortunately, we did not see that until mid-summer when I parted the tomato jungle and discovery the stalks yearning to see the sun. We tried to stake the tomatoes away from the cardoon but there really wasn’t enough room for them to flourish. Still, they were harvested and the small stalks are just as tasty as the larger ones of the past.
On a recent family Zoom, I told my father about the cardoon I had harvested that weekend and he simply said, “Freeze them. They travel well.” With that edict, I am doing just that when I visit my folks in Florida this month. If someone from TSA opens my suitcase, they are going to see a plastic zip-bag, filled with six-inch stalks that look very much like celery; it will be in a freezer bag and wrapped in bubble-wrap with a note saying, “Cardoon for my dad.” I am going to cook the cardoon for my father, the way he cooked it for me when I was a child, the way his mother made it for him, the way she was taught … Another food linking generations that is woven into our cultural fabric. I sent a picture of the harvest to the cousins who had procured the mounds of stalks in upstate New York; their response was simple: “Abondanza! You do the ancestors proud.”
Pepper Pasqua, October 2021