Most recipes for cardoons, a member of the thistle family and a relative of the globe artichoke, begin with trimming, peeling and poaching them in acidulated water for an hour or more until softened and silky-textured. Once the cardoons have reached this prepared state they are then ready for final preparations ranging from gratins to soups to an accompaniment to a roasted veal shank as sweet, tender bites of vegetable, dripping in pan juices, both sticky and rich.
Why are cardoons prepared in this manner? I understand the trimming and peeling, after all, no one want to eat the tough, fibrous outer edges. It is the long simmering in lemon water that I wonder about. Sure, there is definitely a need for tenderizing, although lemon water itself has only so much flavor. Frankly to mind it's a bit dull. Why not start layering your flavors from the very beginning of the cooking process?
A vast number of recipes seemed to feature the cardoons bathed in Bechamel sauce, sprinkled with cheese and browned to a bubbling gratin in a hot oven. What if we cooked the cardoons in a rich flavorful medium from the start? We also wanted to speed up the cooking process. To our minds, the process of simmering the thistles for an hour in water would only leach the flavor from the cardoons without adding anything special in return.
With these goals in mind, it should be no surprise that I reached for our pressure cooker and the eggnog. I loaded the pressure cooker with the trimmed cardoons, seasoned them with salt, added a cut up Meyer lemon and covered them with the eggnog. Why eggnog? Think about the traditional bechamel and its various incarnations as sauces and gratins. Eggnog echoes their intrinsic flavors and characteristics in a sweeter and sometimes spicier variation. I felt that the inherent sweetness of the eggnog would work well with the bitterness of the cardoon. I added the Meyer lemon because I did not want to have the vegetable out of balance. I thought that the acid and floral qualities of the lemon would benefit the thistles. I set the pressure cooker for seven minutes and hit start.
The pressure cooking actually caused the eggnog to separate into curds and whey. The resulting stew may have looked a bit rough at first. On the positive side, this separation allowed us to strain out the curds and marinate the cleaned cardoons in the not quite crystal clear, cooking liquid. The eggnog added a layer of flavor that was surprisingly subtle. The finished thistles were softly toothsome and redolent with sweet spices and a whisper of richness from their bath. The additional marinating in the broth keeps the cardoons juicy and crisp while allowing the flavors to meld and develop.
You do not need to use eggnog. Buttermilk or even ranch dressing would be equally delicious, as would prosciutto broth or brown butter consomme. We could have even taken the path of cooking the cardoons in the style of Artichokes Barigoule and they would have been delicious. What we found exciting is that by combining a flavored medium and a pressure cooker, we were able to impart flavor and texture quickly and efficiently into a vegetable which is often overlooked because of its lengthy preparation time. The next time you stumble across cardoons in your local market, take them home and see what 7 minutes in the pressure cooker will do for you.