Cardoon Gratin

A bushel of cardoon at the farmers market.

We ventured out to the Ferry Building Farmers Market last month with visiting parents in tow to grab breakfast and browse the stands in search of something interesting to serve with brined pork, from our 4505 butchering class. We grabbed some asparagus from Zuckerman’s Farms (dad’s favorite spring veggie) and what has to be a too early to be real “heirloom” tomato (we’re suckers for a big, meaty tomato).

As we strolled through the stands, we saw a bucket brimming with big, wild-looking stalks of cardoon, a vegetable we’d seen at the market and on menus over the years but had never tried cooking at home. This Mediterranean thistle, and relative of the artichoke, was domesticated eons ago. It shows up in dishes throughout Mediterranean Europe, usually braised, often added to soups, sometimes deep fried. Enzymes in cardoon stamens provide a vegetable source of rennet used in cheese making in Portugal and Spain.

Cardoon’s flavor is subtle like artichoke-as you might expect. On its own, it isn’t terribly interesting. The vegetable provides a nice textural backdrop to some of our favorite flavors and textures – cheese, butter, cream, mayonnaise, garlic – but pungent herbs like rosemary, thyme and oregano would likely overwhelm its delicate flavor.

Cardoon stalk.

After scouring the web and our cookbooks for inspiration, I settled on a gratin of cardoon. A gratin is a simple, efficient choice for any number of veggies and, in this case, a good use of leftover sauce béchamel sitting in our fridge.  I made due with a single stalk, but more would have been better. After removing the leaves and most of the largest stringy fibers from the outside of the stalk, I cut it into two-inch lengths and blanched the pieces in salted boiling water for about 10 minutes.

I could have sautéed them in butter or olive oil with a little garlic and red pepper flakes, but I wanted something richer. I set the pieces in a single layer on the bottom of a small baking dish then spooned the béchamel over the cardoons, sprinkled the sauce with a good helping of micro grated Grana Padano and freshly ground black pepper and then popped it into the toaster oven for about 20 minutes at 375 degrees.

The dish emerged with a beautiful golden brown crust. The cardoon pieces retained their texture and though they were perfectly tender on the fork, they were still pleasantly crunchy and toothsome. We may or may not look for them the next time we’re in the market, but we’re happy we finally gave this new old veggie a try. Next, soup!

Eating veggies are easy with creamy, cheesy goodness.

Mustard Greens

Eat your green veggies.

Steve’s first taste of cooked greens came in the late-‘80s. They were prepared in a modest home somewhere in central Florida (Tampa? Ruskin?) and they were amazing. It would be years after those first tastes before he rediscovered collard and mustard greens. Our diets improved dramatically when we moved to San Francisco in the mid‘90s in part because we started including fresh, bold greens into our grocery routine thanks to all the ease of access created by the purveyors in our neighborhood. And unlike the way greens are cooked in the South, long and slow, when you cook them the California way, they’re a quick sauté, spending time on heat just long enough to become a little tender while still chewy.

Mustard greens are sharp with their peppery, spicy and slightly bitter flavors – perfect with olive oil, garlic and chili pepper flakes. These greens are real “super food” that delivers impressive quantities of vitamins and minerals in a single serving. They’re delicious added to hearty soups and clear broth noodle soups. They can be baked in gratins or shredded and added to stir fry. We like them pan cooked in hot olive oil. They retain their bite and their herbaceousness when cooked quickly at high heat until just wilted.

Pan wilted greens make a perfect side to rich meat dishes. The astringent greens cut nicely through the sweet puree adorning the roast as well as the cheesy polenta that we served with it.

Sauted Greens

1 bunch mustard greens, kale, or chard
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large garlic clove
pinch of red pepper flakes
salt and pepper

Wash the leaves and remove the stems. The stems can be used in the sauté, or frozen for another use, or composted. If using the stems, cut into small pieces and sauté for 5 minutes before proceeding.

Roll the leaves together and cut into 1” ribbons. Heat the olive oil in a sauté pan. Smash the garlic and cut into large pieces (at the stems at this point if you’re using them, add to the hot oil, cook for 1-2 minutes or until fragrant, along with the red pepper flakes if using and cook for 10 seconds then add the greens. Season with salt and pepper. Cook for 5 minutes, turning with tongs. Add a little water, about 2-3 tablespoons, to the pan along with the greens to avoid burning the garlic. Cover the pan with a lid and cook for another 5 minutes. Check the pan often and add more water if necessary to make sure the pan doesn’t dry out. Check the salt and pepper and re-season if necessary.