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The Cardoon: In All Its Glory

You’ve probably seen a few things on your plate at the Harvest Table that you wouldn’t find at your average diner or grocer. Because we source our food locally and seasonally, we are able to experiment with a wide range of fruit and vegetable varieties at the restaurant. As a grower, this gives me an opportunity to grow out-of-the-ordinary vegetables, and know that I have a market for them (Thanks, Philip!).

Those of you that have ever seen our booth at the Farmer’s Market know that I have a particular affinity to purple vegetables. From beans to tomatillos- if there was a purple variety, I planted it. There was a purple flower that made it into many of my flower arrangements this summer and prompted many questions: “Is that an artichoke?” “That looks like a thistle!” “Is it some kind of Benjamin’s Button?” These people knew their plants, but they weren’t familiar with the great beauty of a cardoon plant.

The plant itself looks prehistoric; It’s large, jagged leaves are sort of a slate green color, the stem is covered in cactus-like thorns and the flowers are protected with sharp spikes, much like an artichoke. The flour is a gorgeous incandescent purple color. It’s loaded with pollen, and a favorite of the bees. The Cardoon is a perennial plant in the right climates, and is just another cultivar of the artichoke, in the thistle family. Artichokes are bread to have large flowers for eating, and the cardoon is bred for its stalk. Artichokes are difficult to grow here in Appalachia, so we’ve been experimenting with the cardoon as an alternative.

Processing the cardoon in preparation for cooking is a lot of work. Prior to harvesting, we tie feedbags around the stalk of the plant to prevent sunlight from reaching it. This is called “blanching” and we do the same thing for some of our celery. This makes for a more tender, less harshly flavored stalk.

When the stalk is ready to be harvested, the entire plant is cut from the roots. Next, you remove much of the green, leafy matter to preserve the quality of the stalk. A knife can easily be run down the sides of the stalk to remove the cactus-like thorns and any remaining leaves.

Next, the outside, convex side of the stalk must be peeled to remove the stringy outer layers. There is also a light film on the inside, concave part of the stalk that can provide a less pleasant dining experience if left.

Then, cut the stalk to the desired length and soak it in a bowl of lemon juice to prevent browning. Once all of the stalks are ready to go, they can be placed in fully saturated, boiling salt water for 45 minutes or until the salt water softens the taste.

Don’t worry. We won’t make you do all of that work just to eat some cardoons. Keep an eye out for this unique vegetable and other local goodness on our menu, which changes often and can be found on our website or Facebook. Let us know about your favorite unique vegetable, who knows, you may find it at The Harvest Table!

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