One of my favourite places in Paris is the Luxembourg Gardens. This photo was taken in the autumn when cardoons were part of the flower borders, I've also seen them in Parc Montsouris. I wanted to sneak back late in the evening to harvest a few stalks, but the gardens, wisely, are closed at night.
As you can see from the cardoon flowers they're a close relative of the artichoke. The cardoon heads, before they flower, are edible, however cardoons are grown for their large fleshy stalks. I love their earthy, artichoke taste. The dried flowers provide a vegetarian rennet for making cheese.
Then cook them in boiling salted water until tender, they take about 25 minutes, depending on their size and age. Once cooked, drain them and dress them with a vinaigrette, add to a potato salad, or cover them with cheese sauce and make a gratin. A good way for a novice to try them.
In Piedmont cardoons are served raw with bagna calda, a dip made with lots of garlic, anchovies, olive oil and butter. The cardoons in North America are larger and more bitter so most people prefer them cooked. It's not the bitterness that stops me, I love bitter melon, it's the texture of the larger stems that are often hollow in the centre. The small, velvety, centre stems, if you take the time to peel them completely, are crunchy, juicy and pleasantly bitter. Perfect to dip in bagna calda.
Cardoons deserve to be more popular. If you see them in your market give them a try, they may look like celery on steroids, but they're a much more interesting and complex vegetable.