Thursday, December 4, 2008

Cardoons: Friend or Fiend?

I was really surprised today when I found this wonderful vegetable at my local grocery store, Safeway nonetheless! I HAD to get some and make one of my favorite dishes growing up, Cardi alla Besciamella, or Gratin of Cardoons in Bechamel Sauce. I would eat so much as to feel like I was going to explode, an early sign of my weakness for great food.

Cardoon, or Cynara cardunculus, belongs to the Asteraceae family, and is a cousin of the artichoke. It is normally blanched by tyeing the leaves to make the stems softer and less bitter (the only part of the plants that is used in cooking). The cardoon plant is beautiful and looks like a celery on steroids (it grows to 6-8 inches tall), it blooms in late summer with beautiful purple flowers. According to wikipedia "Cardoons are used as a vegetarian source of enzymes for cheese production. In Portugal, traditional coagulation of the curd relies entirely on this vegetable rennet." My 3 cardoon plants were attacked by thousands of aphids this spring, but sure enough a dozen ladybugs laid eggs on the leaves. The ladybug larvae that emerged devoured the aphids with great voracity. It turned into a wonderful science lesson as we watched several generations of ladybugs grow (I think we went down to third cousins, once or twice removed). Talk about the power of beneficial insects.

Cardi alla besciamella
Serves 6

3 pounds Cardoons
boiling salted water
juice of a lemon
4 garlic cloves, peeled but left whole
1/2 grated parmesan cheese
extravirgin olive oil
salt and pepper

Clean the cardoons as you would celery, removing any tough string. Cut the stems in smaller pieces, 4-5 inches long. Cook in boiling acidic water until tender. Sauté the cardoons with olive oil butter and garlic, remove the garlic and transfer into a baking dish. Cover with the béchamel sauce and the grated parmesan cheese. Bake at 350F until hot and the sauce starts coloring. Serve warm.

Béchamel Sauce
Courtesy of Mario Batali
Makes 3 cups

5 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
4 cups milk
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

In a medium saucepan, heat the butter over medium-low heat until melted. Add the flour and stir until smooth. Over medium heat, cook until the mixture turns a light, golden sandy color, about 6 to 7 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the milk in a separate pan until just about to boil. Add the hot milk to the butter mixture 1 cup at a time, whisking continuously until very smooth. Bring to a boil. Cook 10 minutes, stirring constantly, then remove from heat. Season with salt and nutmeg, and set aside until ready to use.

Buon Appetito!

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