Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Mighty Cardoon and Other Wild Edibles

A few days ago, Chrysteena asked me what these are:

(I really wish I could find my digital camera battery, because every empty lot in Chicago seems to have at least 5 of these plants in it right now. But for the time being, this Googled image will have to do.)

"They're some kind of thistle. I think you can eat them...?" was my answer. Not totally uninformative, but still. After a bit more research, I've discovered how wonderful the Cardoon really is!

Yes, folks, the cardoon! Step right up to learn all about this versatile little wildflower. Obviously it's botany/foodie 101 level knowledge that the artichoke as we know it, that spiky ball of deliciousness that I would walk over my own mother to eat, is a flower head. Here's some in bloom, the way we see them at the floral wholesaler for work.

See the resemblance?

Apparently these are quite good steamed or fried or eaten like a regular artichoke, although I can attest from the few times I've tried to nab some for cut flowers that they are prickly as can be. I'm not entirely sure how one deals with that, I guess a stealthy peeling is all it would take.

I suspect that I'm so excited about these because not only is the cardoon a locavore's alternative to the artichoke, but because of the time my father would spend on camping trips enticing us to learn our wild edibles. In some sort of Tom Brown-induced fit of modern naturalism, I dutifully memorized the edible (and otherwise useful) parts of the cattail, water lily, sumac berry, indian cucumber root and puffball mushroom. And I have to say, this knowledge has come in handy every now and then. Why pay top dollar for wild mushrooms when you can find them walking home from work?

Maybe not at it's tastiest this way, but takes like gourmet gnome food (ie: earthy and delicious) in homemade ravioli!

I'm getting a little side tracked, I know. Back to the cardoon. My last exciting tidbit of information is that the heads and stems of this versatile and (from what I've heard) tasty flower can be used as a vegetarian rennet in the curdling of homemade cheese!

WHAAAT? But it's true! It's even in Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll, so it's got to be true. The Portugese, it would seem, rely on the milk-curdling properties of this particular thistle in the production of Torta Serena and other soft, fondue-like cheeses, which I will be sure to buy from Cowgirl Creamery as soon as I settle in Oakland this September. (!!!!) I'd love to try this myself, but all recipes I find online advise against the use of cow's milk, as it becomes bitter with the addition of the cardoon "rennet". So unless I can find a sheep to milk in the next few months, I'll have to content myself with trolling through the local Whole Foods in the hopes of finding it there.

In the meantime, I'll just have to don some gloves and figure out how to cook these things!