A place to explore and buy perennial vegetables and other food plants.
The mighty cardoon; prized ‘architectural’ plant, top-notch bee plant but also a tasty edible (especially the fleshy mid-rib and stalks of the leaves). It is a perennial plant, often, but not always, surviving a British winter.
Almost everything you read tells you that cardoon plants must be blanched (by either earthing up or wrapping in cardboard or hessian or similar) to reduce the bitterness of the leaf stalks. It has taken me three seasons to achieve a degree of cardoon blanching success!
I bought my cardoon in late summer in 2014 from Victoriana Nurseries. Sometime in 2015 when the cardoon’s thistle-like flowers were towering above my head I realised I’d missed my chance to blanch the stalks for that year. Instructions you read for blanching cardoons will probably be assuming that you sowed your cardoons in April and set out the plants after the last frost. Come the autumn, spring-sown plants will be about three feet high and ready for blanching (also it won’t flower until the following year). The penny was (rather slowly) dropping: I was growing cardoons perennially so a) my already established plants would reach three feet high much earlier in the year (by about April or May) b) if I was going to harvest any later in the year I would have to cut out the flower stalk to keep the contents of my blanching bundle leafy.
So in May of 2016 I tried my first cardoon blanching.
Alas, when I removed the cardboard several weeks later I just had mushy rotting leaves. Perhaps the leaves were wet when I bundled them up or maybe spring leaves have a higher moisture content and need a shorter blanching time.
I tried again this year.
Better this time – not much mush but there were some slugs – and a flower stalk!
I’d only used cardboard but an inner lining of newspaper or brown paper is often recommended which could be tied quite tightly with string top and bottom to prevent slugs crawling in. Or maybe stuffing any gaps with straw might help. And I should have removed that flower stalk!
But there was enough undamaged leaf stalk to proceed to the cooking stage.
I washed and trimmed the freshest looking stalks and pared away the thick fibres from the ridges that run along the back of the stalk and midrib.
And then sliced the stalks into pieces about 10cm long and 1.5 cm wide, dropping them into acidulated water before simmering them for about 30 minutes until tender.
Tasting them, the flavour was good. Interesting and juicily refreshing. Difficult to liken to anything else. Yes, perhaps a little bit like globe artichoke centres – but I wasn’t sure. Maybe slightly fishy even? Not at all bitter. Unfortunately they were really still quite stringy, so, although I kept having a chew to try and place the flavour and because they were quite moreish, I had to concede that they weren’t really fit for the table.
So what went wrong? The strings seemed to run right through the centre of the cardoon pieces; I can’t imagine getting more of them out without dismembering the whole stalk!
This Telegraph article suggests you need to cut them on the diagonal in 1cm pieces to stop them being stringy – but then why all the recipes calling for cardoon ‘batons’. Well, those tough fibres are the plant’s way of keeping its big leaves erect and spread out to receive the sunshine. And growing on quite a windy site like mine the leaves probably react by becoming even more fibrous. You are also supposed to grow the plants in a particularly nitrogen-rich soil with plenty of water – mine didn’t really get such luxury. I think next year I’ll feed the plants in early spring and perhaps harvest them a bit earlier when they are smaller and softer.
Also I’m going to try some without blanching them at all – I suspect that the bitterness is a late summer thing. A couple of reports I read online concur with this; that spring leaves are less bitter and that blanching isn’t necessary. I like the idea of not bothering with blanching – I should of course have tried that first!
Just one more thought. Annually grown cardoons, blanched in October and harvested in November, give you the bonus of a tasty vegetable in winter (they can also be stored for several weeks in a cool, dry place). I think the method described in Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way: 18th-Century Methods for Today’s Organic Gardeners by Wesley Greene is interesting, where the plants are allowed to flower in summer and then cut down, and blanched later after they have resumed growth in autumn. Might be worth a try to see if it would work in Britain.