That Old Thistle
By Catherine Coburn
Thursday, January 8, 1998
Everybody knows about Monterey County and artichokes. They show up on the list of things we like to brag about, somewhere next to our great restaurants, garlic, superior wines, John Steinbeck and good weather. But it appears that only a smattering of MoCo dwellers can speak with the knowledge of acquaintance with another of our prized (if somewhat under-appreciated) amenities, cynara cardunculus, or cardoon, the granddaddy of the globe artichoke.
"Here, come here," my neighbor Carmen waves to me one day, holding up a dish of something deliciously golden brown, obviously deep-fried and decadent. "Here, have some. Eat, eat," she thrusts it under my nose. "Put this in your mouth. It''s delicious, but you don''t know what."
"Artichoke?" I guess. "I told you so," she laughs. "Well, it can''t be deep-fried celery, can it?" I knew I was losing. "Ha!" she snorts. "You put anchovies in your marinara, didn''t you?" I founder, dipping up a big glob of exquisite tomato sauce, her souped-up version with anchovies and capers, a master work that must surely be attributed to the rise of the Roman empire. "Well?" she chides. "All right, all right, I got it," I''m dead meat, I know, wickedly. "Tofu sticks." She slaps my hand and screams some ancient Italian curse on my family crest. "Cardoon! Cardoon!" she wails. Onerously under-informed, I seek to redeem my place in the neighborhood.
"Monterey County has the distinction of being the largest grower of cardoons in all the United States," says Pat Hopper of Ocean Mist Farms in Castroville. "We produce all of about 15 acres," she laughs. "They come from the same family as lettuce and dandelions."
Some food scholars maintain that the artichoke is really a cultivated cardoon. Everybody agrees that they''re labor-intensive to prepare.
"Cardoon on the hoof is huge," says Hopper. "It''s a beautiful plant that can reach a height of seven feet and produces a big purple flower. With artichokes, it''s the unopened flower buds that are consumed, though people in the know will peel back part of the stalk, and eat that, too. With cardoons, the stalk is the edible portion. Sometimes it''s called ''Texas celery.'' And it''s your old-time Italian cooks that know how good it is and still go to the trouble of cooking it."
Not exactly an "old-time" Italian, Cal Stamenov at Highlands Inn Pacific''s Edge restaurant puts cardoons on the menu on occasion, nonetheless. "It takes quite a bit of time to prep," he admits. "You have to pull the stringy fibers off the stalk and blanch the bitterness out before you go any further. It''s really popular in the south of France, and I''ll sometimes do a classic gratin with it, where you alternate layers of blanched cardoon, cut into one-inch pieces, with bone marrow and truffles and bake it in reduced cream."
Becoming almost mild after blanching away the bitterness, the flavor is sort of like a combination of celery, artichoke and nuts. The edible yield of the plant is somewhat scant-a six-pound stalk might turn into two pounds after removing the leaves and thorns. And cardoons are not exactly easy to find: Ocean Mist sends most of their crop to the East Coast. But, as a thistle with a local address, it''s recommended fare if you don''t happen to be on a deadline for dinner. Be warned, however: Substituting tofu is strongly discouraged. cw