The Proof is in the Gratin

cardoon stems“The old gray donkey, Eeyore, stood by himself in a thistly corner of the forest, his front feet well apart, his head on one side, and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, “Why?” and sometimes he thought, “Wherefore?” and sometimes he thought, “Inasmuch as which?”


On September 19th, 1832, biologist Charles Darwin passed through the remote Argentine settlement of Guardia del Monte, and noted that the village marked the southernmost limit of the cardoon infestation on the pampas. Cardoon, or Cynara cardunculus, is a big thistle. Darwin had passed by weed patches where cardoons stood as high as a horse’s back in thickets that covered hundreds of square miles. This week we harvested close to a ton of cardoon on my farm for our CSA subscribers. “Why,” you may ask, “are you growing a plant that one of the brightest stars in the history of science described as a pernicious and invasive weed?” I’ll tell you, but words only go so far, so I’m including a recipe at the end of this history. Cardoons are good food, and the proof is in the gratin.

Cardoon is a sister to the artichoke, but instead of eating the immature flower bud, we eat the petiole, or leaf stalk. Cardoons make flower buds that look like small, spiny artichokes, but you’d have to be hungry to make eating them worth the pain. A number of different cardoon varieties that have been developed by farmers, and most of them have been selected to have few, if any spines. The kind of cardoon I grow is an Italian breed called Gobbo di Nizza. Massed over hundreds of thousands of acres, the way that Darwin encountered them, I’d imagine that cardoons would be a dreary sight indeed, but in a garden setting the plants are beautiful and sculptural. I’ve found that cardoons offer excellent habitat for Ladybugs to breed and multiply in, so our cardoon patch not only serves as a food crop, it’s also an insectary that benefits the rest of our more common vegetable crops.

Cardoons evolved around the rim of the Mediterranean Sea, and people have eaten them for a long time, but Roman gardeners are thought to have been responsible for taming this thistle into a garden vegetable. It was a Roman custom to dip tender, young cardoon stems in a simple sauce of warm olive oil and butter and eat them raw. The bigger stems were typically baked, steamed, or fried. As the Roman Empire expanded, the practice of growing cardoons extended as far north as the weather permitted. The cardoon, like the artichoke, is frost tender, so it didn’t become established in colonies like Britannia or northern Gaul, but Roman cardoon recipes found favor in warmer regions. To this day, cardoons are much appreciated in Spain, southern France, and northern Italy. But cardoons haven’t only provided pleasure at the table— they’ve also provided fodder for a joke at the expense of the Swiss.

The word for thistle in Latin is cardo. The word for “big thistle” became cardone in Italian and chardon in French. In Mexico, big saguaro-like cacti are generically referred to as cardon. In alpine Switzerland, cooks wanted to emulate the magnificent cardoon recipes of their lowland relatives, but they couldn’t, because frosty alpine Switzerland doesn’t provide a good habitat for the temperate minded cardoon. Farmers improved the beet green, Beta vulgaris, so that a more cold tolerant plant could sport a fat, white, succulent and mild flavored stalk like chardon or cardone and could be cooked in the same way. “Chardon Suisse,” laughed metropolitan French chefs when they saw these odd new beet greens, “Swiss thistle!” The Erbette ‘chard’ is the descendent of the original thin-stemmed beet green that was improved into ‘Swiss thistle.’ We’ll grow ‘regular chard’ for you later this year, along with red, gold, and pink chards. Ironically, I’ve met Americans who strip the leafy green part of the chard leaf off the stem and cook it and throw the thick stalk away, thus entirely missing the point. I’ve even had customers at farmers’ market buy bunched beets and ask me to twist off the greens and toss them away, while at the same time they buy a bunch of chard from me. They’re not saving any money, but I remind myself that the customer is always right. Still, if we remember our history, we’re reminded that old fashioned recipes for Swiss chard ought to work well with cardoon.

When the Spanish conquistadores came to South America they brought their long horned cattle and their cardoons with them. A terrestrial age of Taurus dawned across the great southern plains. Cattle multiplied like fleas across the pampas. Their sharp hooves cut the turf and wore it away, providing a place for feral cardoon seed to germinate. Cattle dung fertilized the soil and gave it the flavor of home. Soon, isolated outcroppings of cardoons that had escaped from the garden metastasized into thorny jungles. The cardoons reacted to their new freedoms by shedding all vestiges of tender domesticity and reverting to their original vicious, spiny habits, just as the feral Spanish cattle learned to be wily and wicked again as they outwitted and outfought the native panthers. The Spaniards had come to America hoping to subdue and civilize a wild continent. But instead, long before Darwin showed up to observe nature, the cow and the cardoon had already gone “native” and reverted to their horny and thorny natures. When gauchos gave chase to descendants of the wild Iberian cattle, hoping to slaughter beef, the longhorns could disappear into oceans of thistles and thorns and be lost to the bolo, the riata, and the corral for good. The dance of progress had taken one step forward and two steps back, and that’s an interesting dialectical evolution to ponder.

copyright 2008 Andy Griffin

*Andy tweaked this piece just a little from the one we ran in our CSA newsletter last week.

photo of Red Swiss Chard, it sort of shows it’s thicker stalks

Photoessay of making cardoon gratin with Martin in our kitchen


Martin’s Cardoon Potato Gratin

8-10 stalks Cardoon
2-3 medium potatoes
8 oz grated parmesan cheese
1 pint half and half or cream
S & P to taste

Blanch the cardoon stalks in water that has a splash of vinegar or lemon juice until medium tender. You can peel them if you like. We don’t. Cut the cardoon stalks in 1/4 inch crescents, across the grain, like you would celery. Peel the potatoes. Cut the potatoes into batons, about like a french fry. Toss the cut, blanched cardoon stalks with the potatoes directly in a gratin dish. Reserve a handful of the cheese for the top and toss the rest of the cheese with the cardoon/potato mixture. Add the pint of half and half (or cream if using.) Season with salt and pepper.
Bake in a 425 oven 40 minutes or so: until golden brown and the potatoes are all the way through.

Andy and I had a great little cardoon dish a few years back at the upstairs Chez Panisse and loved it. Here’s Russ’ recipe:

Russell Moore’s Cardoon Recipe
Russ cooked upstairs at CP for 20 years, now he’s about to open Camino! we can’t wait.

Peel stalks of cardoons to get the bitter outer skin off. Boil in salted water until tender, that could be from 5-20 minutes. (I would cut the stalks in half so they’d fit my pans. -jw)

Slice cooked stalks on the diagonal (like you would celery) then dress with a vinaigrette. For this dish the vinaigrette has a bit of anchovy, garlic, lemon and a small splash of red wine vinegar, and olive oil too of course. (Julia’s hint: one basic formula for vinaigrette I’ve read includes 3 parts oil to 1 part acid: lemon juice or vinegar)

They serve the cardoons this way room temperature with some hardboiled egg: either chopped or in wedges. Russ said this dish benefits from a bit of fat served with it and he likes the hard cooked egg for that contrast.

Cardoon thoughts and a recipe from Chef Andrew Cohen:

Cardoon is a vegetable like artichoke in that it oxidises and discolors. Chefs will usually toss it into acidulated water (water with lemon juice) to keep it from discoloring.

When thinking of cardoon, keep the flavor of artichokes in your mind when planning the dish.

Chef Andrew’s simplest Cardoon-Pasta preparation:

Slice and blanch cardoon. Saute onions and garlic and toss with pasta. Grate some parmesan cheese. This could benefit from some green olives as well.

Here’s an idea I picked up from a book of Mid-east cookery. This is based on a lamb dish with cardoon. Cut cardoon into 2″ long pieces and blanch in salted water. Saute onions and garlic with turmeric, paprika, parsley, and coriander. Add in cardoon and a handful of cracked green olives or oil cured black olives. Give a toss, and add a couple chopped tomatoes and some water( a couple cups). If you have some mid-east style preserved lemons, cut one up into largish pieces(1″ or so) and toss that in as well. Cook for a 1/2 hour to soften vegetables and integrate flavors. This could take peppers(hot or sweet) or eggplant as well. Simmer cardoons cut into batons (3″x1/4″) until tender and layer into a gratin dish that has been rubbed with a garlic clove and lightly oiled. Layer with parmesan or gruyere, then pour in cream over all. Bake until golden and bubbly.

3 Responses to “The Proof is in the Gratin”

  1. 1 laura

    Hey great post Andy.
    I arrived at your site by searching for Agretti so it is my first visit and I love the article on Cardoon. They are a great food. Here in Southern France they are a traditional Christmas eve supper dish. There are a number of local ways to cook them including stewing in tons of olive oil. I posted a recipe for such a dish a while back, if you want to check it out.
    I look forward to visiting again.

  2. 2 Andy

    Hi Laura: I could eat the phone book if it was stewed with enough fine olive oil. One thing I love about cardoons, besides the flavor, is that the harvest comes in late winter/early spring when we really need the cash flow on the farm.

  3. 3 Ron


    I have been growing this plant without much interest since November in Berkeley, CA. I thought it was an artichoke and lost interest when I realized it wasn’t

    One day I noticed that I had a vibrant, beautiful plant, and I luckily still had the name stake. I’m excited about trying some of your recipes! thanks for the great post.

    Ron Stark

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