Cardoons, or Cardoni, are one of those things that you’ve probably passed by in someone’s garden or a city park, not realizing that a delectable treat was just at your fingertips (if you’re willing to brave the prickly leaves, peel away the fibrous strings, chop them, and boil them for thirty minutes before you even get close to eating them). But bare with me, because they’re worth the work.
If you don’t believe me, trust the millions of Mediterraneans who have enjoyed this vegetable for thousands of years, Imagine a meaty, juicy stem that tastes like artichoke. See? I told you they’re worth it.
I first discovered cardoons two years ago while working on a small family farm in a remote village of Spain. The farmer’s mother, who lived down the road, marched over at least every other day in her black shawl and wool skirt at a pace that was shocking for her 80+ hard-lived years. I usually found her collecting eggs to take back home to make a tortilla de patata for her husband. But one day I spotted her cutting away giant stalks from a large prickly plant that I had assumed was some sort of annoying weed or a lazy artichoke plant that didn’t produce artichokes (they are, in fact, a type of thistle related to the artichoke). I walked over and asked her what it was. “Cardo, niña,” she said. And then she started to explain how she cooks it, all whilst hacking away at the plant and tossing the stalks in a pile on the earth with more energy than I had felt all morning at my easy task of collecting asparagus. “No te preocupes, yo te lo traigo. Ya veras.” Not surprisingly, she promised to bring me some later to try. Typical hospitable Spaniard.
Later that day she delivered on her promise and brought me my first pot of cardoons. Those giant, intimidating stalks with their prickles and fibers were transformed into tender morsels that had soaked up the flavor of the olive oil and garlic she sauteed them with. I reacted with such love and appreciation for her dish that she invited me over for lunch the following Sunday, where I got to enjoy more of her good cooking. When my time at the farm came to a close a few weeks later, I spent my last evening chatting with her in her kitchen.
Once I knew that cardoons existed, I started seeing them around town, in stores and in the ground. Berkeley Bowl has cardoons in Spring, and the workers in the produce department have lots of great tips on how to prepare them. It was chatting with one of them that gave me the idea to introduce more of of the Moroccan spices that so remind me of Spain, and to serve it on couscous, as I do in this recipe. But if you don’t want to bother with all that, you can try the cardoons “Esperanza style” with a drizzle of good Spanish olive oil and sauteed garlic. Either way, I think it’s impossible not to love them.
Cardoon Moroccan Stew (Vegan!)
- 1 lemon
- 1 bunch cardoons
- 2 Tablespoons olive oil
- 1 onion, thinly sliced
- 1 teaspoon saffron threads
- 2 Tablespoons minced ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 Tablespoons brown sugar
- 3 cups water
- 1 cup white wine
- 1 teaspoon salt
- Fresh cracked pepper
- 1 pound red potatoes cut into bite-sized cubes
- 1 pound tomatoes, chopped
- ⅔ cup assorted olives, pitted
- ⅔ cup chopped cilantro
- ⅔ cup chopped parsley
Fill a pot with cold water and squeeze the lemon juice into it. Bring to a boil while you prepare the cardoons. Cut the base off the bunch of cardoons and discard. Cut the tops containing any large leaves off each stalk and discard. Now working with each stalk one-by-one, use a paring knife to peel away the long edges of the stalk to remove any remaining small leaves or prickles. Then peel away the strings and thin silvery skin along the length of the stalk (similar to de-stringing celery) using a paring knife, or scrape them off using a sharp flat-edged knife on its side. Once the entire stalk has been cleaned, chop it into 2-inch pieces and place them in the pot of lemon water so they don’t discolor. Boil for thirty minutes and drain.
Heat the olive oil in a large dutch oven or flat-bottomed skillet over medium-low heat. Add the sliced onion and saute for 5-10 minutes until the onion is softened and begins to caramelize. Meanwhile, pound the saffron, ginger, turmeric, garlic, and brown sugar in a mortar and pestle until it forms a paste. Add to the onions and saute for an additional 2 minutes to release the flavors. Add the drained cardoon pieces, water, wine, salt and pepper, potatoes, tomatoes and olives and simmer for 20-30 minutes or until the potatoes and cardoons are tender.
Serve garnished with cilantro and parsley over a bed of couscous.