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.
- 2 bunches cardoons, 3 to 4 large stalks on each
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 3/4 cups milk
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- A pinch of nutmeg
- 2 teaspoons plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
- 1/4 cup homemade, coarse, dried breadcrumbs
- A handful of fresh parsley leaves
- 1/2 cup freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano
- 1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes (optional)
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 400°F and bring 3 to 4 quarts of water to a boil in a large pot.
Have ready a large bowl of cold water, into which the juice and squeezed halves of a medium lemon have been added.
Working with one stalk at a time, strip the cardoons of leaves and use a sharp peeler to remove any tough, stringy outer parts. Cut them into 5 to 6 inch lengths and then cut the lengths into 2 or 3 strips lengthwise. Add the cardoons to the acidulated water, immersing them.
Add the cardoons to the boiling water; you can add some of the acidulated water and the lemon halves if you wish. Cook the cardoons until they just begin to turn tender, about 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the cardoons to a shallow dish, then lay them on paper towels to drain and cool.
While the cardoons are cooling, make the béchamel. In a medium saucepan, melt the butter until it bubbles slightly. Add the flour at once and stir with a wooden smooth until smooth and bubbling; continue to cook over medium heat, until the mixture turns a pale, sandy color, about 2 to 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, heat the milk in a separate pan to scalding. Add the hot milk to the butter mixture, 1/2 a cup at a time, whisking continuously until very smooth. Bring the sauce to a boil and cook gently for about 5 to 6 minutes, stirring constantly. Remove from heat and season with salt and nutmeg, and set aside.
Place the breadcrumbs, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the parsley leaves, 1 tablespoon of the grated cheese, and the optional red pepper flakes in a food processor and pulse to chop the parsley and combine the ingredients. Season the breadcrumbs with salt and pepper to taste.
In a medium baking dish, add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and brush evenly around the pan to coat it. Dribble 1/3 of the béchamel evenly over the bottom on the dish and add enough of the cardoons to cover the bottom of the dish. Generously dribble some of the béchamel over the top of the cardoons and sprinkle evenly with some of the grated cheese. Continue to layer the cardoons, béchamel and grated cheese, finishing the last layer with béchamel and an even coating of the seasoned breadcrumbs.
Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the entire dish is bubbling, golden and crispy on top.