serves: 4 to 6 servings
Cardi are popular all over Italy but especially in Sicily and in Piemonte, on opposite ends of the country. In Sicily it is cooked as a side dish (contorno) and served with pasta while in Piemonte it is used in soups, stuffings, and dipped in bagna cauda. In truffle season, all cardi dishes are served with shavings of white truffles. The prized cardoon of Piemonte-essential if serving with truffle-is the cardo gobbo di Nizza, the tender white cardoon that never sees light. Here is the baked cardoon gratinate I prepare at home with the conventionally grown cardoon available in American markets. It is delightful as is but if you happen to have a white truffle lying around, give it a shave over the gratinate before serving.
2 pounds cardoon, 1 small head or the inner stalks of a large head
6 tablespoons butter, or as needed
⅔ cup Grana Padano, or Parmigiano-Reggiano, freshly grated
1 teaspoon kosher salt, or sea salt
Before trimming the cardoon head, fill a large bowl with 1 1/2 quarts of cold water, squeeze in the juice of the lemon and drop in the cut lemon halves. Snap off the outer stalks at the base, discarding any that are bruised or tough and over-mature stalks (usually 4-inches or wider). Keep separating stalks until you get to the heart, a pale cluster of tender stalks and leaves. Trim the base of the heart stalks so they separate, cut crosswise in 3-inch pieces and drop in the acidulated water.
Now trim the larger, separated stalks, one at a time. First peel or cut the long edges, removing all the sharp pointed leaves (they get softer on inner stalks). Trim the top and base of the stalk, as with celery, and pull up the strings that run along the outside. Shave off the remaining fuzzy skin with the vegetable peeler. Finally, remove the pale, transparent skin that covers the inside: lift it at one end with the knife point and peel away in a long ribbons. Cut the trimmed stalk crosswise in 3-inch pieces and immerse them in the lemon water while you cut up the rest.
Bring 3 quarts water to the boil in a large saucepan. Lift the cardoon pieces from the lemon water, drop into the pot and cook until soft and tender (and to extract some bitterness), at least 30 minutes up to an hour or more for thick pieces. Remove the pieces as each is done (heart pieces first) and drain in a colander.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Smear 2 tablespoons or so of the butter on the bottom and sides of the baking dish, coating it generously. Melt the remaining butter.
Lay cardoon pieces flat in the dish, covering the bottom in a single layer, sprinkle about 1/4 teaspoon of salt and 4 tablespoons of grated cheese all over and drizzle over 2 tablespoons melted butter. Make another layer of cardoon (or 2 more, if you have lots of pieces) and top with salt, cheese and butter. Sprinkle 1/3 cup grated cheese on the top layer of cardoon, or more, covering them completely.
Lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the dish and crimp it loosely against the sides. Bake for 30 minutes, remove the foil and bake another 10 minutes until the cardoons are lightly caramelized and bubbling and the gratinate topping is golden. Serve hot.