by Sarah on April 9, 2009

Cynara cardunculus

I was surfing the web to find the English name of what in Israel is known as harshaf or harshoof and found fascinating information about this lesser known relative of the artichoke. Perhaps the most interesting is that Mario Batali, world renowned chef, no less, thinks that the cardoon has a very sexy flavor. I raised my eyebrows at that, what exactly was he referring to? And what, I wonder, would the old Moroccan ladies at the shuk say about that?

I am embarrassed to say that I was ignorant of this sexy vegetable up until a few weeks ago when I took a trip with my mother to the Carmel Shuk of Tel Aviv. One merchant was selling the biggest celery I ever saw and when I commented about it he said,
“That’s not celery! That’s Harshaf (he called them wild artichoke) and the Moroccans love them.”

Of course I bought it even if I had no idea what to do with it. When I came home I did a little background check on it and found out that it is predicted to be the next exclusive gourmet vegetable. Exciting information indeed! Although I am sure if I told this to the other women buying it they would roll their eyes and say, “Exclusive? Oh really, I have been eating this all my life.” Even so, a few weeks passed before I found a good recipe but by then my poor cardoon turned into a different life form.
The artichoke was domesticated in Sicily during Roman times, while the cardoon in the Western Mediterranean at a later date from the same wild progenitor. In ancient times the Arabs, with their advance knowledge of agriculture, introduced and dispersed many crops, including the artichoke throughout the Mediterranean. Now both the cardoon and artichoke are popular in Italy, North Africa, Spain and the Provence, France. It has been described as having a smoky and as I mentioned a sexy flavor. I am lacking in wine and cheese creative jargon and can only say that to me it tastes very artichokey. It can take all morning to remove the fibrous and stringy parts of the stem to make it edible and this is the main reason why it is not more popular. It is also a very particular crop, prone to frost which causes it to become bitter.

Besides the edible stems, from early times and even now in some places in Portugal and Italy the cardoon flowers are used as a source of vegetable rennet for making special cheeses. Indeed this rennet has been found highly similar in composition to the more traditional calf rennet but the cheese made with cardoon rennet is softer, creamier and less bitter. In addition cardoon leaves are a rich source of antioxidants.

I decided on a Spanish recipe of stuffed cardoons (cadros-meat stuffed cardoons in a lemon sauce) which was a long and tedious affair and I wish I could say that after hours of prepping it was an extraordinary dish. Although it was tasty, this way of preparing it didn’t bring out the cardoon’s full delicate flavor even with just a lemon sauce. Evelyne, my Tunisian neighbor, says that her mother usually stews it with meat and this is the way Moroccans and the Spanish prepare it. There are many similarities in Spanish and North African dishes which stem from their common history. I can’t say that my first taste of cardoon was sexy, but I am sure that if Mario Batali made it for me I would have a different opinion altogether.

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