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Seriously Italian: Cardoons

[Photograph: Gina DePalma]

It is always a little weird to talk about cardoons in the context of Italian cooking, because I can't resist using a brogue and rhyming them with Brigadoon, or coming up with a silly comparison to Lorna Doone. Speaking Italian, it is much easier to talk about the seriously delicious versatility of cardi, or cardone, as they are known.

Cardoons are among a bounty of vegetables that once graced the tables of Ancient Rome, marching through the centuries to remain a seasonal mainstay in Italian markets. Sadly, they are harder to find here. Cardoons look like a supersized form of celery, with velvety, wide, deep-green leaves, but with a delicate flavor reminiscent of an artichoke.


I've sampled this member of the thistle family in a number of formats: pickled or puréed into savory spreads or sformati, in salads and soups, sautéed and tossed with pasta. My family favors them simply breaded and fried in plenty of good olive oil. In Piedmont, cardoons are a classic vegetable for dipping into the iconic bagna cauda. And from north to south, you can find hearty versions of cardi al forno, bubbling in béchamel, or under a coating of flavor-spiked breadcrumbs and cheese.

This week I'm drawn to baked cardoons for obvious reasons (like, it's February and it keeps snowing). My own recipe for cardi gratinati is a hybrid of the creamy and crispy variations. I like a touch of richness from a loose and light béchamel with the golden crunch of breadcrumbs, all in one bite.


The important thing to remember when working with cardoons is that just like their cousin the artichoke, they turn brown when cut and exposed to air. To clean them, strip the leaves and use a sharp peeler to remove any thick, stringy parts on the outside, cut them into lengths and then strips, and plunge them immediately in cool water that had been acidulated with a few generous squeezes of lemon juice. I toss the lemon halves right into the water. Keep the cut cardoons immersed while you clean the rest. You can transfer them to clean boiling water, or just cook them right in the acidulated water for a bit of tang in the final flavor.

This is a fantastic side dish with just about anything, and can stand alone with a salad as a hearty meal. You may have some leftover béchamel to use for an impromptu cup of macaroni and cheese.

About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats.


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