When Liz suggested we visit Ramle Market, I happily agreed, not just for the shopping-I wanted cardoons, Liz purple carrots- and not even for the fabulous street food but to make good on a promise.
I had been to the souk many times before; a life sized kaleidoscope, the backdrop constant but the details and colors perpetually changing. With my camera, I’d try to capture glimpses of the market, both the mundane and the fleeting offerings of each season; Bunches of lilac tinged garlic in the spring, strawberries so red and unblemished they look artificial but for their heady aroma. One vendor, still very young, happily posed with a bag of tiny plums and asked me to bring him a picture next time I was there. I didn’t, but he reminded me again….I appreciated his good humor and for not yelling at me, as someone once did “What am I? A monkey at the zoo?”
This time I was ready with prints, not only of him, but others as well, as many as I could find hidden in my hard drive. I walked through the main corridor, with my camera in the bag, hoping to find someone familiar. First, I gave two photographs to the Turkish bourekas vendor and after a moment he asked how much it costs “Nothing”, I answered “Thank you”, he said.
Then I passed by the supermarket stroller guy who makes a few shekels by helping customers with their bags. He’s the same fellow who mimics the sound of parrots and watches in amusement as the uninitiated search the skies (you should hear him squawk). His reaction was a gusty “OOOO-AAAHH!!!”, a sound Israelis like to use when impressed or surprised. Towards the end of the market I saw the bright eyed woman vendor, small behind piles of tiny squash and eggplants. “Toda, toda, toda, eiza nehmad!”, she said (Thank you, thank you, how nice!). Opposite her was the wild edible green stand but someone else was there today, his brother it turned out. “You don’t have a picture of me?” he grumbled.
On the way to meet Liz I passed the lemonade man, the pomegranate juice man and the brother of the samusak/zoolbia man from the original photograph, their reaction a combination of amusement and curiosity. After a moment to reflect they would offer a simple “Thank you” as they went back to business.
But where was the dark haired young man I photographed?
Do you know where he is” I ventured while holding up the picture “The boy?” He’s usually down there” the apple vendor motioned with his arm, “but he isn’t here on Mondays”. I showed him another picture “That’s his brother, he’s not here either” “Photograph me and bring it to me next time”, he demanded, his face serious.
In my search for the brothers, I found cardoons and was given a recipe from the man at the herb stand. As I left, I took another look around and not recognizing anyone else decided that I’ll have to come back.
When I visited Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem last December, I met a woman rolling an enormous cardoon in her cart. With its tuft of leaves and slender stalk, it looked more like a sapling than a vegetable. Although I have cooked them before, I was curious to know how she prepared them. She was gracious enough to explain the following recipe, finishing off by saying “It’s delicious and full of iron”.
Cardoons are from the thistle family and have been developed for their fleshy stalks instead of the head of the flower bud as in artichokes. They have a more subtle flavor than the usual artichokes, and are especially popular in Mediterranean countries such as Morocco, Italy and Spain. The Portuguese traditionally use cardoons as a source of vegetable rennet to produce local cheeses.
Their origin is believed to be from the Magreb where wild species still exists. Israel is home to a variety of edible wild thistle including Cynara syriaca, considered to be the biblical artichoke.
Tangine of Cardoons and Meatballs
2 bunches of cardoons
1 teaspoon turmeric
4 garlic cloves
600 grams ground beef or lamb
4 tablespoon bread crumbs
1 teaspoon salt
1 large onion, grated
1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
½ freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon Ras el hanout (mixed Moroccan spice, or use ½ teaspoon cinnamon)
Remove the leafy part of the cardoons and discard. A small sharp knife should be used to remove the tough, fibers from the stack. A potato peeler with a thin opening can also be used but may remove too much. Once one end of a fiber is released it can be simply pulled off, like those strips used to open packages. Chop the stalks into large pieces and put it in a bowl. Pour in enough water to submerge the stalks and add the juice of one lemon and the lemon peel. Let soak for about 1 hour so cardoons do not discolor and its bitterness is reduced.
Meanwhile prepare the meatballs.
Combine all the ingredients and knead until well mixed. Set aside.
Chop the cardoons into 1-2 cm pieces. In a medium sized pot heat olive oil and add the chopped garlic. When bubbles start to appear around the garlic add the cardoons. Sauté for about 1-2 minutes and then add 1 cup of water, salt and the juice of one lemon. The cardoons take longer to soften than celery. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and let simmer for about half an hour. Taste a piece of cardoon, it should have lost most of its stinginess.
Form small meatballs from the meat mixer, about 2 cm across (the size of a pingpong ball). Add the spices to the cardoons, the black pepper and turmeric and bring to a boil again. Add the meatballs directly to the pot of cardoons. If there isn’t enough sauce to barely cover the cardoons add a bit more water, but don’t overdo it since it will also dilute the flavor. When all the meatballs are arranged in the pot, cover and cook for 40 minutes on low. The pot can be transferred to a preheated 180⁰C ( 356⁰F) oven to brown the tops of the meatballs (they shouldn’t be submerged at this point).
Serve over white rice or couscous.