Native to southern Europe and North Africa, cardoons (Cynara cardunculus) are perennial plants with fleshy, edible stalks that can grow up to 6 feet tall. They produce silvery-green leaves and flower buds that are similar to those of an artichoke, though they’re usually not eaten. These buds bloom into large purple thistle-like flowers, which can provide a striking element in garden design.
Cardoons grow in bunches, like celery, and should have wide, plump, gray-green stalks. Choose bunches with plenty of inner stalks, which will be more tender than those on the outside. Refrigerate cardoons in a plastic bag for up to two weeks
Begin by separating the cardoon bunch into stalks; discard any tough outer stalks or narrow, leafy ones from the center. Use a paring knife to trim away spines and leaves and to shave off the inedible fibrous exterior from each stalk. If you don’t plan to use the peeled cardoons immediately, keep them in acidulated water (a mixture of water and an acid, such as lemon juice or vinegar) to prevent discoloration.
Parboiling trimmed cardoons before using other cooking methods will reduce their bitter flavor and make them more tender. Parboiled cardoons can be sautéed, added to creamy gratins, braised with herbs, puréed, grilled, or lightly battered and deep-fried. You can also toss them with a vinaigrette or try them dipped in bagna cauda, an Italian sauce made with cooked anchovies and garlic. Cardoons pair well with béchamel, truffles, and truffle oil and are complemented by cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano and fontina.