Cardoons on the Table

Thanksgiving daécor from the vegetable garden: Gigante di Romagna cardoon, Bright Lights chard and Redbor kale.

It’s tough to grow artichokes if you don’t have a Mediterranean climate; either the growing season is too short ( Maine) or the summer is too hot (New York, and increasingly Maine, too, but that’s another story). In any case, the best you can usually do is about 6 artichokes per 5×4 foot plant; and while of course they are your own, they aren’t so splendidly wonderful they justify the space.

But cardoons, well cardoons seem possible. You don’t have to get as far as flowerbuds and because you’re eating the leaf ribs, big fat ribs from leaves that can be 3 feet long and more, yield is not a problem. Only catch is that you have to blanch them before harvest to keep them from being bitter.

Or at least that’s what all the growing instructions say. But in my experience – years and years of experience because some people are pigheaded about giving up on exotic comestibles – it doesn’t work. The standard blanching technique, unchanged for centuries ( loosely bind the leaves into a bundle, then exclude light with a wrapping of straw) makes the silver leaves even paler. But it does nothing else noteworthy, even when pressed past the suggested 2 or 3 weeks into 4 and even 5, the outer limit before rot sets in.

You do get a suggestion of artichoke, in that everything you eat afterwards tastes sweet and faintly metallic, but about the cardoons themselves suffice it to say that gall isn’t usually stringy.

Next year ( once more unto the breech), we’ll try a different variety: maybe “Large Smooth” instead of “Gigante di Romagna,” our current plants of which are now 3 years old.

We’ll probably leave the few oldsters around too, assuming they do come back again. Cardoons are beautiful, terrific bouquet material all summer long and especially welcome at season’s end, when they are among the last plants standing.

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