I’ve always thought that cardoons were an absolute waste of chlorophyll, not to mention growing space and market space. They look prehistoric, are a hassle to prepare, and up until now, never tasted like much of anything. Sure, you can read about their vaunted delicate artichoke heart-like flavor, but I’ve always thought that was a polite way to say bland, bland, bland. Unfazed, our friend Alice gave me a clump of cardoons the other day, and recited me her recipe for Cardes à la Provençale. It’s a typical Provençal dish at this time of year, and she spoke of anchovies, and garlic, and I found that tempting, but memories of previous bad experiences with the fibrous stalks made me, ulp, toss the stuff. Besides, I reasoned, you could eat cardboard with anchovy and garlic sauce and it would probably taste, if not exactly good, at least not too different than the cardoons themselves would.
Undaunted, Alice invited us over and prepared the dish herself, after extracting from me my sheepish admission that no, I hadn’t actually used the cardoons she gave me.
Ok, I admit it. I was wrong, I was absolutely wrong. I remembered having to cook the dratted things for an hour and a half before they got tender. Alice instructed me to use only the tender, white hearts of the cardoon, not any of the green and mega-tough outer stalks. You do have to pull off the long strings, as you might with some over-age celery stalk, but that’s sort of fun, in a perverse way. And while I didn’t discover any sort of delicate artichoke flavor, because the anchovies and garlic pack a real wallop, and while the dish will never win any beauty contests, it is, in fact, pretty darn good, especially in a relatively small quantity as a starter. So get yourself a clump of cardoon, try this recipe, and imagine that you’re spending Christmas in Provence.
Alice’s Cardes à la Provençale
1 large clump heart of cardoon
4 T white vinegar
8 anchovy fillets
5 cloves garlic
3 T olive oil
about 1 cup heavy cream, up to 1 1/2 cups
First, steel yourself. You need to separate and wash the stalks, because cardoon can harbor a lot of inner dirt. Next, de-string the stalks, enjoying yourself as much as you can in the process. Fill a large pot with water and add the vinegar. Cut across the stalks as if you were thickly slicing celery, halving lengthwise any really large stalks.
As you cut the cardoons, drop the pieces immediately into the vinegary water, to keep them from turning brown. When all the cardoon pieces are in the pot, bring it to a boil, then lower the heat a bit and boil gently for 20-30 minutes. You want the cardoons to be fork-tender, but still slightly firm, as they’re nicer to eat with a little bit of crunch. Drain the cardoons into a colander.
Heat the olive oil in a skillet and add the anchovies, mashing them with a fork until they dissolve. Add the garlic and sauté until it turns lightly golden. Put the cardoons into the skillet and stir to combine. Now add the cream, starting with one cup. What you’re going to do is cook the whole mixture until the cream reduces and a thick creamy sauce covers the cardoons. In my skillet, which is large, I ended up using a cup and a half. Don’t be shy with the cream, it’s the ingredient that brings the whole thing together. When the cardoons are luxuriously coated, add lots of freshly ground black pepper. You probably won’t need to add any salt because the anchovies are pretty salty, but you may add more if you wish.
Serve all alone on a small plate as a first course with a good bread to mop up the last bits of sauce. And fear cardoons no more, this dish conquers all. While eating it, the word cardboard will never once cross your mind.