Cardoons are native to the Mediterranean region where they are still popular today. The vegetable has a long history, with ancient Romans enjoying cardoons as part of their meals. Typically cooked before eating, they are now grown and eaten in northern Africa and throughout the Mediterranean. They're often available in the winter, sometimes lasting into the spring months.
What Are Cardoons?
Cardoons are a type of thistle in the sunflower family and are closely related to artichokes. They're also known as the artichoke thistle. But instead of eating the flower buds as with artichokes, the stems are the tasty part of cardoons. The spiny green stalks resemble a large bunch of celery, but don't break off a stalk and get snacking. Cardoons take some careful trimming and peeling, but they're worth the effort. Because the vegetable isn't that common in the U.S., it will cost more than many fruits and vegetables.
How to Cook With Cardoons
The stalks of cardoons look like giant celery, but they need to be pared and cleaned before they're cooked. Be very careful of the prickles that may be on the leaves and edges of the stalks. Wearing gloves while preparing cardoons will help protect your hands and also will prevent your fingers from becoming stained brown.
To prepare a cardoon, you'll need a vegetable peeler, a paring knife, and a bowl filled with cold water and the juice of a lemon or two (a splash of white vinegar also works). Remove the large leaves and the thin tops of the stalks. Separate the stalks and use a paring knife or peeler to remove the entire length of each side of the stalk, removing any remaining prickles and tiny leaves.
The entire stalk of cardoon is covered in silver-hued strings. Start paring at the top of the stalk and peel downward to remove the strings. It's okay to have some silver color remaining on the stalk but try to remove as many strings as possible so that the stalk takes on a fresh, green appearance.
The flat side of the cardoon stalk also has a layer that should be removed. Again, start at the narrow top of the stalk and work downward to remove the thin skin and strings. Cut the stalks into chunks—as you cut, more strings and film will peel off. Place the cut pieces in the bowl of lemon water as you go, to avoid browning.
Now the cardoons are ready to cook. Note that some recipes call for them to be parboiled before proceeding. The prepared cardoons can be boiled, steamed, fried, or stewed.
What Does It Taste Like?
Cardoons taste very similar to an artichoke with a slightly more bitter flavor. The bitterness will depend on growing conditions and maturity. The mild, artichoke flavor makes cardoons delicious on their own as a simple side dish or as part of a stew or tagine. When cooked, cardoons become tender, much like an artichoke heart.
Cardoons can be used in recipes similarly to artichoke hearts. Battered and fried, they make a delicious savory snack. Steamed, braised, or sautéed, they are a simple side dish that can be paired with a variety of dishes. Add them to stews or blend them into a creamy soup. They can also be brined and preserved for later use.
You can also sometimes swap cardoons for artichokes, like in a Moroccan Artichoke Salad recipe.
Where to Buy Cardoons
Cardoons are not often found at supermarkets but can be found at Italian and specialty markets, especially in season. Look for them, sold on bunches much like celery, at the farmers' market during the winter and spring. A bunch can weigh from 1-3 pounds.
Cardoons are typically grown blanched, an agricultural process that involves covering the stalks with soil or a wrapping during the last few weeks of growing to encourage tender, less bitter stalks. Therefore, look for pale cardoons that feel firm (not quite as firm as celery) and avoid soft stalks and wilting.
You can grow cardoons at home if you live in a warm, relatively dry climate. They are popular as ornamental plants in gardens since they are tall and attract pollinators. Cardoons can remain viable for up to seven years and are typically harvested in late summer or early fall.
Loosely wrap unwashed cardoons in a plastic bag and store in the crisper of the fridge for up to a week. Note that it's very difficult to pare a cardoon if the stalks are not firm and fresh. Try to use cardoons as soon as possible after buying.
Brined, canned, and unopened cardoons will keep in a dark, cool place for up to a year. Cooked cardoons will keep for up to three days in an airtight container in the refrigerator.