cardoons take finesse: to spell, to cook, to find. or maybe not finesse, but savvy. they are wonderful when prepared with some caveats and with friends with whom it gets along (heavy cream [yes, do it, don't skimp] breadcrumbs, parmesan cheese) but can be like eating stringy packing thingies if they are not picked well or undercooked. if follows then that all you gastronomically inclined folks must be wondering.
"how do you pick good cardoons?"
early on (think right now) in the season for cardoons and artichokes they are few and far between, artichokes much more than cardoons, but more on them in april when there will be billions.
cardoons, if you really want to get technical are a specific sort of naturally occurring cousin of the globe artichoke of which there are many cultivated varieties. traditionally you pick the entire cardoon plant before it has opened completely and you get nice small, usually blanched stalks. but you don't get anything else after that, nothing grows back. so once, when we ran out of true cardoons for a restaurant order, we cut some artichoke stalks and lo and behold, they preferred them. makes sense, they are so closely related as to be indistinguishable once prepared and cutting artichoke stalks means the entire plant is not killed, so long as not too many are taken from one plant. so it worked out for both us and our customers.
but it doesn't make finding the nice ones easier. when i say a nice one, i mean a fairly large stalk that is free from bubbles it's entire length (which indicates hollow or soft stalks) and is firm enough to resist a hard squeeze between thumb and forefinger. obviously old or damaged stalks are no good.
so there you are, out in our front cardoon-ichoke field, it's lightly raining but you can see sun a couple miles away, 52 degrees and you wonder if the people glancing at you from their cars on the road do so with envy or pity. you have five boxes to fill and you start at one end where the plants are mostly small but there is a cluster of larger ones. you dismiss several plants around you as you pull one or two stalks to look down them and see large bubbles the whole length. as you move toward the cluster of larger plants you check a few smaller plants that might just be long enough. you feel at the base of the stalk and it seems good, so you cut three from the plant and keep walking, none of the cluster of large plants is any good. didn't somebody say that cold is what helps the stalks harden up completely? well, definitely not frost, cut a cardoon stalk when it's frozen and see if the restaurants appreciate getting an entirely floppy useless box of cardoons, you let your mind wander as you try more and more, accumulating perhaps one cardoon per twenty tested. after half an hour you take a look at your box and notice a few smallish bubbles higher up on the stalk of a few of them. they're still usuable though, right? to know for sure you take your knife and cut one about midway down the stalk and discover a marked hollowness that was not even hinted at from the look of the base of the stalk. curses follow, you had three quarters of a box picked, but now it looks more like half a box with the three from that first plant tossed out. exasperated, you continue, the box is getting heavy so you set it down and concentrate only on seeking out those nice, big, solid stalks. no, bubbles, no, too small, no, not firm, too small, bubbles, none of these are any good, oop, old birds nest, here's two good ones, too small, bubbles, uh-oh...where did you put the box. it was right behind that one plant, right? or in the next row over? you carry around the two good stalks, sure that the people in those cars are laughing riotously as you wander around searching for your lost farm box, you can just hear them.
to avoid this situation, avoid being overly single-minded. avoid being in a hurry. embrace the weather and your soaking wet pants. don't lick your lips after picking cardoons all day, the bitterness from the plants sticks to them, and definitely don't rub your eyes unless you like having watery, itchy eyes for an hour or so.
these are all lessons learned in a cardoon field, now i've gotta go get three more boxes, see ya.