It's probably telling that when asked how he likes to cook cardoons, Flora Bella Farm's James Birch immediately says, "By finding someone else to do it." Birch says he does like the flavor -- it's nearly identical to its thistle cousin, artichoke -- it just takes a bit of work and time to get it there. He's one of just a few growers who bring it to market during its short spring season and he has a small but loyal group of customers who snatch it up.
Cardoons are a member of the thistle family, but unlike artichokes where the prize is the flower, the harvest target is the long silvery leaf stalks. The center ribs are thick and meaty like celery and extend the length of your arm, feathered on all sides by profuse and frilly leaves. If you like to meet new people at the market, buy them first and have them stick out of your market bag behind you as you wander the stalls. The unusual tail waving behind you calls the curious, and the conversation is easy when sharing recipes.
But back to the prep. It's really not that difficult. What takes time is the braise needed to render the thick and meaty into tender and luscious. The few who grow and sell cardoons are enjoying a bit of a renaissance as local chefs resurrect and refine classic recipes for spring menus. Flora Bella will have cardoons for the next few weeks, but it is a fleeting flavor. As soon as the heat hits Three Rivers, the plants will send up their spikey flowers and the season with end. More on prep, and a surprising new vendor at the Hollywood market, after the jump.
Cardoon prep is a challenge, especially for first-timers with very little kitchen space. The stalks from Flora Bella are huge, stretching well past a yard. Remove all the leaves and any thorns from the stems with scissors or a sharp knife. Running a peeler or paring knife down the back of the denuded stalks will remove some of the tougher fibers and, as with artichokes, a bath in acidulated water (lemon juice works) keeps them from oxidizing and turning black.
From here you have a couple options: stick them straight into some stock with mirepoix for a long simmer and eventual blend into a velvety cardoon soup, or cut them into large (two to three inches) pieces and blanch them in well-salted water for about half an hour. The cardoon is a Mediterranean import and has a rich recipe tradition throughout Europe and the Arab world. It's also very forgiving and nearly impossible to overcook -- a rarity among the usually tender spring crops.
And speaking of spring, farmers that left the markets after their harvest season ended last fall are starting to reappear (Flora Bella was one of those). New to the Hollywood market this season is the Santa Monica market favorite, Windrose Farm. If you couldn't make it to the Wednesday Santa Monica market, or head up to Paso Robles for a farm visit, you were out of luck. Bill and Barbara Spencer have long had a loyal following at Santa Monica, especially for their rich and sweet greens, garden starts, and as the season progresses, beans, tomatoes, squash, garlic and other summery staples, and not so staples. They're known for planting a few unusuals and are currently in the process of turning their organic farm into a biodynamic paradise (you can camp there, too). Hollywood is the second L.A.-area market for them.
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