Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Made for a Sicilian Rose

Cardi in Pastella al Forno
Cardoons, Baked in an Egg, Parmesan, Milk & Flour Batter

I wish I could have been in Sicily today, celebrating my mothers Rosa's 80'th birthday with her, rather than being stuck at home here in Frankfurt with a flu virus, or whatever the heck it is that is dragging me down this week! So despite my high temperature and aching limbs, I still dragged myself into the kitchen to bake this little batch of cardoons I had boiled up yesterday...

I love the way my mother prepares the "cardi" as they are called in Italy, in the traditional way- dipping them in a simple egg, flour and milk batter, with a little parmesan cheese, salt and pepper and frying them until they are golden brown... delicious! But much as I love them, being fried, I would not want to indulge too often- you know me well enough by now!
But whilst I was there this Christmas, and tucking in along with everyone else, I said to her "Mom- I am going to try doing an oven baked version of them someday". So what better day than today? Mom- even though I couldn't be there- these beauties were for you!

Cardoons are related to the artichoke family- they are more or less the same plant- except that they do not produce a blossom- the flower that we love to eat- and especially to eat its heart out! They are not wide-spread or well known in as lot of the world, but in France, Italy and especially in Sicily, where they are eaten almost on a daily basis in the Winter months, they are a very well loved green... and with good reason! They are simply delicious!

That being said, they are a little awkward to prepare. First of all, they often have tiny thistles running along the outside edges- ouch! be warned! And secondly, they have lots of sinews... similar to those that you are familiar with on celery or rhubarb. Thirdly- the do take quite a while to cook! So this is what you do...

Start off by stripping away the outer edges using a vegetable peeler, starting at the wide bottom part of the stalk and peeling towards the top in the direction of the thistles growth, so as to not accidentally injure yourselves. Ok- that may sound overly dramatic- and it is, because they are never that big- but still! Next, cut the stalks into pieces of around 3"- this makes them easier to handle- to peel, cook and serve later. Now you can easily strip away the coarse sinews, much as you would with celery, with either a knife or a peeler- just make sure you have removed as much of them as you can. You are left with a dull, silvery membrane on the backs of the stalks, which can easily be rubbed away with your thumb. Oh- but be close to your tap so you can rinse your hands periodically, as they can cause a slight irritation- they are after all a kind of thistle. But hey- don't let me go scaring you off! They are a lot of work compared to other greens- but they ARE worth it! The flavor is similar of course to that of artichokes- only you do all the bothersome stuff in advance. Once it is over with- you can simply enjoy cutting into them and eating them. Ok- one last thing and then we can move on- make sure to pop the peeled cardoons into water as soon as you are done to keep them from discoloring- just like potatoes or artichokes will too.

So the nastiest part is over with- now all you have to do, is to boil these beauties for anything between 45 and 60 minutes, depending on how tender they are (or not). That's a long cooking time... but as I said- it is worth it. Cook them in salted water- enough to keep them well covered. They CAN sometimes be a little bitter, but usually they will be deliciously tender and sweet once they are done... just hope for the best! It's the nature of the beast and you know what? That little bit of bitterness is actually good for you- ask any Sicilian! Now that they are cooked, let them cool off before you go any further- that is why I prepared mine yesterday, which is usually the way we do it in Sicily too.

As I said, normally they would be dipped in batter, in batches of 3 and fried in oil until they are golden brown. I thought up this trick, to make a kind of bake that would yield plenty of batter, to make this into a wonderful side dish or even a simple vegetarian meal in itself. I did this by stacking the cardoons at regular intervals as you can see in the photo above, rather than just laying them all on top of each other in one great heap. This way, I had all of those spaces in-between that could be filled with batter and also set and hold the whole thing together.

To make the batter, enough for one small stalk of cardoons, I cracked 3 eggs into a bowl, added 4 tablespoons of flour, a little salt, pepper, grated nutmeg and a half teaspoon of baking powder and whisked them together until they became a smooth paste. I then added a little milk and a splash of sparkling water- this would help the batter levitate a little better. I whisked it up again at the highest setting for about a minute and then added some coarsely grated parmesan cheese- you can do this to your own taste, but I didn't overdo it- just a couple of tablespoons will do. I stirred in the cheese and then poured the batter evenly into my baking dish, making sure there was an equal amount around all of the cardoons. I then baked this in a pre-heated oven at around 275°F for 40-50 minutes, until the batter was set and a wonderful golden brown. 

So the result is a kind-of Sicilian-styled "toad in the hole" if you like- but call it what you will- you WILL like it! I am sure my mother would have anyway! And I can't wait to prepare this for her next time I go visit! Happy Birthday Mom!

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