[Cardoni, Cardi, Chard (archaic), Wild Artichoke (from Algerian), Artichoke Thistle; Cynara cardunculus]
This thistle, closely related to the Globe Artichoke, is native to the drier parts of the Mediterranean basin, from Portugal to Greece, and Morocco to Libya. The large, fleshy leaf stems are widely used as a vegetable in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy and North Africa. The taste is complex, interesting and artichoke-like - if you have developed a taste for slightly bitter vegetables (a worthwhile taste to develop).
Ecology: Cardoons are decorative, but should not be planted except where they will be carefully controlled. They are aggressive weeds with wind dispersed seeds, and have pushed out native flora in parts of California, Australia, Argentina and elsewhere.
General: Cardoons are a delicious vegetable, with a taste sort of half way between Celery and Artichokes, combined with a pleasant touch of bitterness. Some claim California Cardoons are too bitter to use raw, but I have used them raw, after preparing them by the procedure below (less the simmering), and enjoyed them.
Spain: Cardoons are very popular, particularly in soups and stews. White cardoons are liked there, so large fields of cardoons have mounds of earth piled around them to blanch the stems. This method is not used in California, where the market would not support it. Because of the short season, the Spanish often preserve cardoon stems in brine to be eaten the rest of the year.
Besides the stems, flower buds are collected, cooked and eaten in Spain and Portugal. In Spain and Portugal, the pistils of the flowers are used as a vegetable rennet in the making of some cheeses.
Italy: Cardoons are popular in many recipes throughout Italy. Some recipes call for raw cardoons, but the most popular is battering them lightly and frying them in Butter or Olive Oil (depending on region). Cardoons prepared this way are traditionally placed on the Saint Joseph's Day alters in New Orleans, an entry port for many Sicilians into North America.
Maghreb: Cardoons are particularly enjoyed in Morocco and Algeria. Usage is similar to Spain, in soups and stews, but also with couscous.
Buying: In North America, Cardoons are grown mainly in California, which has the right Mediterranean climate and a strong Portuguese, Spanish and Italian background. They are seasonal, available in Late Fall, Winter and Spring, but may be more bitter late in their season. Look for bunches that are firm and unblemished with unwilted leaves. The photo specimens were purchased from a large multi-ethnic market in Los Angeles in mid January, for 2016 US $0.99 / pound.
Storing: Fresh cardoon stems will keep for up to a week in the refrigerator, loosely wrapped in plastic.
Prep: Use caution if you have delicate hands, as the stems can have almost invisibly tiny spines on the edges of the stalks that can cause pain.