Last weekend, while wandering through our Sunday morning farmers market, we happened upon a vendor selling an unusual, prickly stalk.
A sign, labeled "Cardoons," described the vegetable as a cross between celery and an artichoke. The farmer told us they were "the ultimate slow food," requiring lengthy cooking times.
Up for a challenge, we gladly purchased a few stalks.
Back home and unsure of what to do with the cardoons, we went to our favorite magazine websites for recipe ideas. We only turned up two that looked appealing -- one from Gourmet and another from Food & WIne. Both were recipes for frying cardoons.
So what's a fried cardoon taste like?
Before we get to the taste, a little about the recipe. We decided to go with the Food & Wine version because Gourmet's recipe requires eight hours of soaking time for the cardoons. The F&W recipe circumvents this by boiling the cardoons prior to frying.
That said, before you can boil them, you've got to complete what's probably the hardest part of preparing a cardoon -- peeling it.
Cardoons resemble very long celery stalks, but the ridges along the back are actually hard spines that you've got to peel before you can eat the vegetable. Our vegetable peeler was rendered useless by these spines. They were too tough for us to peel very well, and with every stroke the peeler became tangled in the long curling strands that came off the cardoon. We ended up using a knife and a sort of whittling motion to peel the backs of the cardoons.
Once the stalks are peeled and cut into smaller pieces, frying cardoons is like frying anything else -- dip in egg, roll in batter, fry in oil, cool.
Unfortunately, they also ended up tasting like any other fried item. There wasn't all that much to distinguish a fried cardoon from a fried zucchini or a fried clam strip. All we could really taste was "fried."
Well, that's not completely true. With a lot of focus and a little imagination, we could discern a taste that was indeed a cross between the fresh crisp taste of celery and the buttery richness of an artichoke.
It was a lot of work -- way too much work to end up with just another fried vegetable -- but we'd like to try cooking cardoons again, in a way that does a better job of showing off their actual unique taste.
Any cardoon recipes you'd like to share?
1. 2 quarts water
2. 2 tablespoons white vinegar
3. 4 large cardoon ribs (1 pound), ends and leaves trimmed
4. 2 large egg yolks beaten with 1 tablespoon water
5. 1 large egg, beaten
6. 1 cup homemade dry bread crumbs
7. 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
8. Salt and freshly ground pepper
9. Vegetable oil, for frying
10. Lemon wedges
1. In a bowl, combine the water and vinegar. Using a vegetable peeler, remove the tough outer strings of the cardoon ribs. Cut the ribs into 2-inch lengths, adding them to the vinegar water as you work. Drain the cardoon ribs, transfer them to a large saucepan of lightly salted water and boil until very tender, about 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry; let cool.
2. In a shallow bowl, combine the egg yolks and egg. In another bowl, toss the crumbs with the Parmesan, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/8 teaspoon of pepper. Dip the cardoon in the eggs, then dredge in the crumbs, pressing to help them adhere. Shake off any excess and set the cardoon on a wax paper-lined tray.
3. In a medium skillet, heat 1/2 inch of vegetable oil over moderately high heat. When the oil is very hot, add the cardoon, 5 or 6 pieces at a time, and fry until golden and crisp, about 1 1/2 minutes per side. Transfer the cardoon to a wire rack set over a baking sheet. Sprinkle lightly with salt and serve hot or at room temperature with lemon wedges.