The Elusive Thanksgiving Cardoon

A few Thanksgivings ago, I took my visiting Spanish teacher mom to see the Guggenheim exhibition Spanish Painting from El Greco to Picasso: Time Truth, and History. We talked all afternoon about the bodegónes (still life paintings) featuring cardoons, an ingredient neither of us were familiar with, and that afternoon, I promised to serve my mom a tasty cardoon dish for the holidays.

To add fuel to my fire, a recipe in The Babbo Cookbook had been taunting me with its hazy promises of mixing the mellow cardoon with sharp red onion rounds and piquant preserved lemon slices. It sounded damn near irresistible.

Juan Sánchez Cotán (1560–1627), Still Life with Fruits and Vegetables, ca. 1602. Oil on canvas 69.5 x 96.5 cm. Várez Fisa Collection, Madrid. Image courtesy of
But where was a cardoon to be found in the greater New York/New Jersey area? Invisible at the greenmarkets, nowhere to be found in the exotic produce (of somewhat dicey provenance, I admit) at Corrado’s, I was about to admit defeat after coming up short for the second straight year.

But no! The ever-resourceful Martina at Gustiamo came through for me. She gave me the tip: cardoons are often hidden in plain sight along the back wall at Manhattan Fruit Exchange in Chelsea Market. And it was so. After explaining what exactly a cardoon is and what I was planning to accomplish to the Exchange’s confused patrons and stockboys, I headed off with my quarry.

So what is a cardoon and what did I plan to do with it? Cardoons, though they resemble exuberantly leafy celery, are actually cousins to the artichoke within the edible thistle family, and share the ‘choke’s somewhat challenging prep and cooking time. They are a bit of a mother to prepare, I warn you.

All the cardoon recipes I researched instructed me to remove the leaves (easy) and peel off the tough outer ribs of the cardoon before slicing. My antique vegetable peeler was not quite up for the task, but after a few mangled stalks, I hit on a technique that I think I’ll continue to use even if a new vegetable peeler appears in my Christmas stocking.

This method leaves most of the cardoon’s flesh intact, something I often have a problem with when cutting in too vigorously with a peeler or a misangled paring knife. I held my paring knife perpendicular to the stem and brushed quickly down its surface, letting the stringy strands pile up at the end of the stalk. Watch and learn:

Once all the ribs were dispatched, they were sliced into bite-size pieces and simmered in acidulated water to cover (that’s water with the juice of a lemon squeezed into it) until tender, about 45 minutes to an hour — just like cooking an artichoke, although you won’t have to worry about the cardoon pieces popping up above your simmering water. Drained and cooled, the tender pieces were ready for eating with just a bit of pungent olive oil and salt, but I went the whole nine yards and used the Babbo recipe for my Thanksgiving guests. How could I not, after so many years?

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