Thursday, August 6, 2009

Cardoon, the Other Edible Thistle

We were in an Italian hilltown, ordering lunch in a small restaurant. It was a slow day, and the owners brought out odds and ends from the kitchen for us to sample. The noodles with brown sugar were novel. But more curious was a plate of what they called gobbi-- plant stems that had been dipped in batter and breadcrumbs, then fried in butter. The taste was like artichoke, with a slightly astringent edge. It wasn't until we were back in the States that we learned the plant is known here as cardoon, an artichoke relative grown for its fleshy stems rather than the flower bud. The term used by the restaurant means "hunchback" and refers to the practice of bending the stems to the ground and hilling soil over them. Another method is to wrap the lower 24 inches or so of the bundled stems with cardboard, binding this covering with twine. Blanched stems will have less of the plant's characteristic bitterness, used to good advantage in the artichoke-based Campari and Cinar aperitifs. Wrapping up these man-tall plants is a challenge, even with gloves and a longsleeve denim shirt, because of the spines and the cardoon's sprawling nature. And they garden takes on a ramshackle appearance once the cardboard is in place, as you can see from the right-hand view, above.

Still, cardoon looks stunning in the garden, its spikey silver-grey leaves dominating the surrounding plants. It grows enthusiastically for us here in Pennsylvania, and this year we've had good luck with an heirloom, 'Argente de Geneve,' obtained from a member of Seed Savers Exchange.

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