So what is a cardoon exactly? Like the artichoke, it is a member of the thistle family and it makes a glorious, tall sculptural plant of pale, silvery, grey-green leaves.
It has much smaller thistle flowers than the artichoke but it gets much taller, much bigger, and can be quite spectacular.
By the time I see cardoons in the market they look like huge - almost scarily monstrous - creamy white celery. They have been stripped of all but their most tender leaves, as the part we cook and eat is the stem, wheras with the artichoke we eat the flower.
They are hard work and a pain in the neck to prepare but to me at least well worth the effort for the delicate taste - like a reflection or an echo of artichoke heart - as well as for the texture, which can vary from crunchy and crisp to meltingly creamy according to how you prepare it.
The cardoons we prefer here in Bologna - and probably in all Italy - are known as gobbi or hunch-backed. We like them better because they are more tender, and the flavour more sweet and delicate. Like Italian white celery, they are blanched through cultivation in total darkness. To blanch the gobbi, the plants are bent over to one side when young, down to the ground ,and then covered with earth. Having been bent, they come out looking hunched, short and fat, like this:
Those nice fat stems are a whole lot easier to peel than the regular kind, the cardi lunghi. These come in taller narrower bunches and have elegant slender stems. They just happened to be the only ones available the other day when I made this dish..
I love the feel of the velvet-soft feathery little leaves at the top and always give them a little stroke before discarding them; a little pleasure before the not-so-much-fun task of prepping the cardoon stems begins.
To prepare cardoons for cooking
The stems are fibrous and the coarse and stringy outer layer needs to be patiently peeled - a small knife can be best as they make a mess of your potato peeler with those long, long strings. If you do not need them to be in long pieces for the dish you are making, it is a good idea to cut them into short lengths of about 6 cm *before* you go at them with the potatao peeler - for many recipes you will eventually have to cut them into short lengths anyway.
Like artichokes they oxidise and turn black quickly so have a bowl of cold water aciduated with lemon juice nearby, and drop your prepped cardi into it as you clean them. Once they are all done, cook in boiling water till tender. You can add more lemon juice to the water and some people also add milk and a little flour, all intended to help keep them white, but to be honest I do not bother wth this, I don't my mind my cardi having a little colour.
Cooked cardi (when they are very young they can be eaten raw) are always boiled before proceeding to the second cooking. The boiling not only tenderises, it also removes the slight bitterness of the vegetable.
So once I had my boiled cardi stems, this is what I did, here comes the recipe in pictures:
In to a plastic bag containing flour while still a little damp to help the flour to cling, not too many pieces at a time, shake and shake about to coat well.
Into breadcrumbs - these are my very own home made! A chef once shamed me out of buying breadcrumbs ever again. He said we produce plenty of our own at home and throw them away, just as we wastefully throw out stale bread that has so many uses, so now I save crumbs and first dry, then grind them. I also grate stale bread for breadcrumbs. The Italian word for breadcrumbs is in fact "pan grattato" which literally means grated bread.
On with this task:
You can serve as a starter or as a side dish for braised meat dshes, keeping them on a separate small side plate Italian style, so they do not get soggy.
Crisp outside, tender inside and that delicate faint whisper of artichoke heart; these Cardi Fritti may not be the best way to enhance the subtle flavour of the King of winter vegetables but it is certanly one of the most pleasure inducing winter treats!