Cardoon Gratin Baked in a Pecorino Batter
I love cardoons and was so happy to see them at the market hall yesterday that I just had to take a bunch home with me! True, my mom did make some at Christmas time this year which were delicious, simply boiled and then fried in an egg/flour/milk and cheese batter... but I hadn't made them for myself for quite a long time.
You may or may not be familiar with the long, slightly thorny stalks, which are close relatives of artichokes- basically the same plant but one that does not produce the blossoms... but it is probably the most commonly grown and eaten green back in "The Old Country"- Sicily is absolutely full of them!
You don't often see them on the markets and you may well confuse them with celery if you see them from a distance... albeit very large and very tall celery! Also, as you may be able to see in the image below, they have a silvery grey-white core of soft leaves and have ridges of thorns on the outer edges of the stalks... which might lead you to think- who would want to eat those?? ! And the answer would be... ME! And you too as soon as you try them once!
They are also rather fibrous, in the same way that celery and rhubarb both are... and then some! As you can see in the image below, the fibers of the cardoon are very pronounced and tough, so the best way to prepare them is to cut them into shorter lengths first- in this case around 4", and to then generously slice away the outer layer... quite a bit of work, rather tedious- plus you will start to think you are throwing more away than you have left behind- but they are worth the effort! Trust me!
Here is a final image of how they should look before they are ready to boil. Think of them this way... when you prepare artichokes, there is quite a bit of work involved and then by the end of eating them, you have all of those pieces of leaf to get rid of and that look awful clogging up your dining table. In this case you have a bit more work beforehand- but then the result is something that you can cut into, take a good mouthful of that great artichoke flavor and really enjoy and indulge in, rather than just scraping off a little with your teeth after dipping them and having more scraps on your plate as food in your tummy...
Cardoons do take a long while to cook compared to other vegetables- they will need usually around 45 minutes until they are tender... so in the meantime you can grate a hunk of cheese. Parmesan or Grana are ok, but in this case, I thought that a nice little hunk of Pecorino Pepato, or Pecorino with peppercorns, would be just right. Take a look at the picture below- that small mound of grated cheese and the and that little 2"x4" piece was more than enough to make this completely perfect and delicious.
Whilst the cardoons boiled, I turned on the oven to get it warmed up and made a simple batter to pour over them. I also popped the baking dish into the oven so that it would be nice and hot later on. I made a simple batter from whisking together 2 tablespoons of flour with 2 cups of milk, 1 teaspoon of baking powder and 1 egg. I added half of the grated cheese to the batter, grated it with a little nutmeg and stirred it together well. That was basically the batter taken care of!
I then carefully, as the baking dish was so hot, began to lay out the layers of cardoons and then in-between to add a light drizzle of batter and a sprinkle of cheese. The salty Pecorino was all it needed for seasoning and the pepper rounded it off nicely and allowed the hint of nutmeg in the batter to stand alone against the flavorful cardoons... perfect.. well, almost! One last extra grind of pepper.
I baked mine at around 350°F for circa 15 minutes- this was time enough for the batter to have baked nicely, the cheese to have crisped up on the outside and the apartment to smell terrific! I know some people dislike having their apartment smell of supper- ha! I'd say, they should just learn how to cook and to have their apartment smell of something good!
I think the result and these final images speak for themselves- what do you think?
This would make a great side dish or a small but very satisfying Vegetarian main course. And of course- in Italy, you would not eat this until finishing your pasta anyway- it would definitely be classed as a "secondo piatto" or contorno. The bottom line is that it is healthy and tasty and fun! That's good enough for me- and I hope so for you too!