Saturday, February 21, 2009

Do You Swoon for Cardoon?

Congratulations to Catherine T. for winning the door prize of a cardoon plant from Sage A. at the recent meeting. If you are interested in trying this in your garden, please let me know, as I have a limited number available for sale or trade. (They have already doubled in size since you saw them!)

Cardoon is a naturally occurring variant of the same species as the Globe artichoke. With cardoon, however, the young tender leaves and undeveloped flower stalks are braised and eaten rather than the flower bud. The root can also be boiled and served cold. Reportedly, they taste like artichoke.

Many years ago I bought one at a nursery and grew it as a landscape specimen, never knowing it was edible! It requires so much room (about a 3-6 foot circle) that you will only want one in a small garden, and as a crop it probably wouldn't be profitable. But if you have some space and want a truly beautiful plant you might consider adding a cardoon to your garden and diet!

It is native to the Mediterranean, where it was domesticated in ancient times by the Greeks and Romans. It was commonly eaten throughout medieval Europe, and is still cultivated in France, Spain, and Italy.

Although many people have never heard of it, the vegetable was commonly cultivated in the gardens of colonial America. Like so many types of produce, it simply fell out of favor with the degrading of our nation's diet. You can occasionally find them at farmers' markets during the winter.

And, if you happen to be in New Orleans, Louisiana, on March 19th, cardoon stems are battered and fried and traditionally served at St. Joseph's altars in a city-wide homage to Joseph, the husband of Mary, mother of Jesus, and to carpenters. This is because New Orleans was a major port of entry for Sicilian immigrants during the late 19th century.

The plant is currently being considered as a possible source of biodiesel. Oil is extracted from its seed and is comparable to safflower and sunflower oil. Cardoon can also be used as a vegetarian source of enzymes for cheese production. In Portugal Nisa cheese uses it as a rennet for an earthy flavor.

Cardoon requires a long (5 month) growing season but does well in dry climates. You'll want to keep an eye on it, as it is considered an invasive weed in California, Argentina, and Australia. I had no problem with it trying to escape when I grew it before.

They can be planted after the last frost into a well-manured bed. You can let them grow as is, or if you want to blanch them, about half way through their growing season you arrange the stalks by tying them upright to within a foot of the tops on a dry day and earth up around them without letting soil fall between the leaves, continuing this process as the plants grow.

The plants will be fit for use in about a month after earthing up. Do not let the plants freeze, as they are not frost-hardy! To harvest, remove the earth carefully and take up the plants by the roots, which must be cut off. The video above shows the basic way to prepare them. Closer to harvest, I'll try to find some recipes to share.

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