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In season: What is cardoon and how can I cook with it?

“What is cardoon?” “Is that some kind of celery?” “What do I do with it?”

As I stood under the Fry Farms tent at the Sandy Springs Farmers Market late in April, I heard customer after customer asking those questions. They were looking at a basket of 18-inch long gray-green stalks and the chalkboard sign that labeled the contents as “cardoon.”

Farmer Vicky Fry patiently answered each one.

Cardoon may be new to us, but it’s an ancient vegetable, enjoyed by those living around the Mediterranean for many centuries. A member of the artichoke family, its flower buds are edible just like those of the artichoke, but it’s the leaf stems we eat, inch-and-a-half wide stalks that look like celery on steroids.

Fry and her husband Steve farm in the north Walton County community of Bethlehem. They planted their cardoon last August at the same time they were planting artichokes. Our relatively mild winter let the plants grow on instead of dying back to the ground. “And that meant the plants got really big really fast. Now they’re about four feet tall and four feet wide. They’re just beautiful. Our neighbors have been commenting on how pretty they are.”

The plant grows rosettes of stalks and Fry harvests by cutting off each rosette just below the soil line so the cluster of stalks will hold together. Then she has to cut the stalks in half because they’re just not manageable at four feet long. She composts the top halves since the leaves are pretty bitter, and brings the thick part of the stalks to market.

Fry’s research suggested that blanching the stalks makes them more tender so she wrapped her plants in brown paper tied on with twine.

She expects to have cardoon available through the end of May. When the plants start to flower, she’ll be harvesting its beautiful thistle-like purple blooms to sell as cut flowers. Fry Farm sells at the Saturday morning Sandy Springs and Suwannee farmers markets (the Suwannee market will open this Saturday) and on Wednesday mornings at the Cowart Family YMCA on Ashford-Dunwoody Road.

The farm is also offering “Harvest Boxes.” Similar to a community-supported agriculture box in that each box will contain a sampling of seven to 10 produce items from that week’s harvest, these are available without a subscription or prepayment. They’re $30 and can be picked up at any of the market locations.

One reason Fry wanted to grow cardoon is that she enjoys artichokes but was looking for something with a similar flavor that would be easier to prepare. “It was new to us, too. I just cooked it really simply, following directions I found on the internet. I parboiled the stalks in salted lemon water until they were tender to the bite. Then drained it and put it in a pan with butter and some garlic, tossed it in there until it was hot and then grated a little Parmesan over it.

“People in the Mediterranean eat these all the time. I understand it’s good for your digestion and I like to see people trying something new.” Vegetarians in the crowd may find it of interest that cardoon is used a source of vegetable rennet for making cheese.

Ryan Burke’s Chilled Cardoni Soup

Burke is chef of Twain’s Brewpub & Billiards in Decatur and was game to try a vegetable as new to him as to most of us. He created this cold soup based on the classic vichyssoise. It takes a little time since the cardoon requires a presoak, but you have plenty of flexibility since the soup can be made up to two days ahead. He’d count on 1 1/2 cups per serving.

A y-shaped vegetable peeler makes quick work of removing the strings. They’re very similar to the strings on celery. A quick swipe of the peeler down the stalk will peel off the tough strings. The step of leaving the cardoon to sit in lemon water will reduce the bitterness and keep the cardoon from browning.

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