The appeal of winter markets – and experimenting with cardoons …

10 January, 2011

Palermo’s food markets have their own particular charm –  it’s a raw, earthy charm, devoid of any prettiness or contrived display.  The stall holders, almost universally men, are tough, concentrated, often surly, leathery skinned, loud voiced, and energetic; the buildings lining the narrow, paved streets often run down.   What matters is the produce, abundant and colourful  under faded red canvas awnings and bright unshaded light bulbs.  The markets are appealing in every season, but for me, the winter markets have a particular charm.      

The dominant colour is green, splashed here and there with the brilliance of radishes, oranges, lemons and pumpkins.  The stalls are full of all types of green vegetable: huge stacks, row upon row,  of pale green cauliflowers; bunches of fern-like wild fennel and dark green broccoli and, everywhere, giri, a Sicilian plant with the darkest green glossy leaves and startingly white stalks – something like a cross between silver beet and spinach, it’s a particular favourite of mine. 

Everywhere, too, there are huge bundles of long stemmed and leafy artichokes – and beside them ever-increasing piles of leaves and stalks as they are slashed away from the artichoke heads with broad bladed knife and practised arm.  Its done with such finesse.  Watching it gives me great pleasure.        

Then, on almost every stall, there is another vegetable:  neatly tied bundles of the ribbed stalks of cardi, or cardoons.   I’d seen cardi each winter, but not knowing what they were or how they were cooked, I’d ignored them.   This year, watching a television programme about Clarissa Dickson-Wright (one of television’s Two Fat Ladies) prompted me to look more closely.    

During the programme,  a television producer recounted looking for presenters on unusual vegetables, and going into the cookery bookshop where Clarissa was working  to get some suggestions.  “Well”, said Clarissa, “I know all about cardoons.  I could talk about them”.    When I subsequently told a friend about the programme, her reaction was “But you can’t eat cardoons!  They are ornamental plants –  I have them growing in my garden!”   It was definitely time to explore further.    

Cardoons, I have discovered, belong to the thistle family, and the part of the plant that is eaten is the highly nutritious, pale ribbed stalk.  In the markets here, trimmed and tied into neat bundles, cardoon stalks are one of the most common winter vegetables.  Outside Italy, they may be hard to come by, but they are attractive plants and apparently very easy to grow so possibly worth a try.  A word of warning though – in some places the cardoon is apparently considered a highly invasive weed!    

The cardoon has a delicate flavour – rather like artichoke hearts.  So far, I’ve had most success with several versions of fried cardoons.  These are absolutely delicious and highly recommended.  I wouldn’t say I’ve mastered the art of cooking them, but I have at least tried several versions.  Here’s how I did it.

Preparing the cardoons

Any very thick outside stalks are probably best discarded.  Separate the rest, trim off any remaining leaves and string them as you would celery.  After my first attempt, I also took to the stalks with a vegetable peeler.  Fill a bowl with cold water and some vinegar or lemon juice.  Cut the stalks into pieces about 5cm (roughly 2”) long and put in the bowl as you do – the stalks will oxidise quickly once in contact with the air. 

Bring salted water to the boil, together with some lemon juice and the rind of the lemon.   Boil the cardoon pieces gently until tender, which should take about 20 to 25 minutes.   As you take them out of the water, flatten each one with a fork.   I then used the vegetable peeler again to remove a bit more of the outer layer on the bigger stalks.   

They can be eaten like this, with some parsley and olive oil, but I think they are better fried or baked.  One common method is to place the prepared stalks in a dish with béchamel sauce and cheese and bake in the oven.   I imagine this would be good, but so far I’ve tried only several versions of fried cardoons.

Fried cardoons

In the first version, I rolled the pieces in seasoned flour, then coated them well with beaten egg and fried until golden brown in hot oil.   In the second version, I dipped the pieces of stalk first in the beaten egg, then rolled them in breadcrumbs and fried in hot oil, to which a bit of garlic had been added.   

Both these were very good, but perhaps a slightly simpler version I tried was even better.  For this one, I cut each piece of stalk into narrower pieces, rolled them in chick pea flour (ordinary flour would do, but the extra flavour of chick pea flour is particulary good) and fried them in olive oil for a couple of minutes.  A plate of these, accompanied by a glass of Pieroni beer, on my terrace in the winter sunshine was very good indeed.

8 Responses to “The appeal of winter markets – and experimenting with cardoons …”

  1. jan Says:

    yet again you have enthralled me. is there no end to what you can discover when in Palermo! Describing the market laneways took me back to my visit with you. Cardoons – I am off to Google to see what it comes up with. I am also off to my Gleadell Street Market in Richmond to see if some of the stallholders who sell from their own backyards and have an array of ‘different’ greens include the ubiquitous cardoon (just the name is enough to inspire me!!)

    • kateludlow Says:

      I do feel there are endless things to discover here – I can’t seem to do more than scratch the surface! I love your enthusiasm – thank you! You’ll have to come back and explore the markets again – meanwhile, I hope someone there might be able to oblige with some cardoons.

  2. Cate Says:

    I agree, your words and photos are very evocative of my visits to Palermo’s food markets. I’ve never heard of cardoons so was very interested to read about them. The fried version in chickpea flour sounds delicious. What a great name too. I would love to hear Clarissa Dickson-Wright talking about cardoons!

    • kateludlow Says:

      They are worth trying! I’d like to hear what Clarissa says about cardoons too, but I don’t know what the programme was – and a quick look on the BBC website hasn’t turned up anything. Thank you for the comment.

  3. Sally F Says:

    I shall encourage our mutual friend in Kew to donate one of her mammoth cardoons for culinary experiment – loved reading your blog and recalling our debate on the subject. We did not see any in Ecuador!

    • kateludlow Says:

      I’m sure our mutual friend in Kew would spare a cardoon for culinary experiment – if so, I look forward to the results. And I won’t bother looking out for cardoons when next in Ecuador!

  4. Louise F Says:

    Rather belatedly I have spotted the report on cardoons. As the mutual friend in Kew I have three cardoons appearing so am happy to experiment with one. Cardoons seem to be fashionable as I think I saw one on sale in a market recently.

  5. kateludlow Says:

    Very pleased to know that you can spare a cardoon for culinary experiment. Looking forward to a report.


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