Chef John Fraser admits that cardoons look like “celery with armor.” Beneath that bristly exterior, though, there hides a delicious spring vegetable. Just be sure to snap on a pair of gloves before you start preparing them.
“You have to be careful of the thorns because they are pretty... sticky,” says Fraser, who heads the award-winning restaurant Dovetail on West 77th Street. “The only way to cook cardoons without peeling them first is to make soup out of them. They must be washed first. But otherwise you need to get those thorns off.”
Cardoons also need to be introduced to an acid soon after being prepared or, like artichokes or other basic vegetables, they will turn brown when exposed to air. “It doesn’t necessarily change the flavor, but it’s not as pretty,” Fraser said. When shopping for them at the farmers market, go with stalks that are still firm and seem crunchy, he added.
Cardoons, which are invasive in some parts of California, are now in season there, and Fraser receives regular supplies from the Santa Monica farmers market. “I would put them somewhere between celery and artichoke,” he says of their flavor.
Fraser previously trained with Thomas Keller at The French Laundry in California, and started working with cardoons while living on the West Coast. He realized that many people might not be familiar with the thistle-like plant so his first step was to create an informal marketing strategy for explaining its appeal. “You know, a lot of people believe that sort of ramps are the first sign of spring,” Fraser said. “I actually would make the argument that cardoons are.”
(Photo: John Fraser/Nathan Rawlinson)
Currently, he serves poached cardoons with lamb in a homage to the coming season. “They are the sort of ‘here comes spring’ ingredient,” he says. “If you’ve ever seen a plant, I mean, they look like weeds. They have this... overgrown celery look. If you didn’t know any better, you’d say someone should have cut that, you know, last year.”
Because of that relatively toughness, Fraser recommends long and slow cooking methods like braising. At Dovetail, he uses vegetable stock with salt, lemon juice, white wine, thyme, garlic and bay leaf as a poaching liquid.
“They really have this sort of Mediterranean feel,” Fraser said. “Anything that goes with an artichoke goes with a cardoon.”
Below, try Fraser’s recipe for cardoon gratin, which is a classic Mediterranean method of preparing the vegetable.
Cardoon Gratin with Pine Nuts, Parmesan, Winter Truffle
by John Fraser, Dovetail
(Photo: Cardoons at the Union Square Farmers Market/Howard Walfish)
- For cardoons: roughly 2 bunches
- Acidulated water to prevent oxidization
- 1 lemon per quart of cold water (about 3 qts total)
Peeling the cardoons:
Peel the cardoons and place immediately into acidulated bath. After peeling, cut the cardoons into 2 inch lengths.
- 1 qt milk
- 2 oz butter
- 2 oz flour
- 4 oz grated Parmesan
- 1 tbs winter truffle oil
- salt, pepper, nutmeg, cayenne to taste
Prepare a roux by melting the butter on the stovetop and mixing in the flour. Cook on medium heat stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for 2 minutes total. Cool. Bring the milk to a simmer. Whisk in roux and cook at a light simmer for 15 minutes. Whisk in seasoning, cheese, and truffle oil.
Pine Nut Breadcrumb
- 2 cups stale, day old breadcrumbs
- 1 cup pine nuts
- 1 cup grated parmesan
- 1 tbs fresh thyme leaves
- Toss ingredients together.
To prepare gratin:
Mix cardoons with the mornay and pour into a large buttered casserole dish. Top with Pine Nut Breadcrumb, cover with foil, and bake for 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Remove foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until top is evenly browned.
Finish with Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Shaved Winter Truffle
Optional additions: caramelized onion, raisins, sage, etc.