Pre-lockdown, when dining concerns were of the garden variety and not of distances between tables, I had an enlightening discussion with two prominent food critics about eating healthily in restaurants. Great topic.
Eating for a living comes with its challenges, but the true professionals are extremely perceptive when reading a menu – they pick out dishes with hard-to-find ingredients as well as those with a good nutrient value. That being said, no one can deny fried thingies – they are likely to be the tastiest morsels to order.
I’m hoping that outside of traditional cuisines and home cooking, “health food” and “gastronomy” will start intersecting more, because the most flavourful produce seems to always contain the most nutrients.
More and more it is becoming the norm to see plant-dominant menus in restaurants, and I deeply appreciate and applaud this. As a gardener supplying restaurants, I put it upon myself to seek interesting varieties for the chefs I work with.
I approach crop selection on my farm blindly sometimes. I pick varieties I’ve never grown, eaten or seen before, tempting fate in my ability to sell it once it is ready to harvest. The anticipation is thrilling.
Plants are my doorway to the mysteries of the wider world. I love knowing that whatever it is I’m growing it’ll be a first for my palate because even if I have eaten it elsewhere before, fresh produce drawn straight out of healthy soil is unique to your locality, and an overwhelmingly life-affirmative experience.
With an intrepid backyard gardener mentality, I grow as many heirloom varieties as possible – these are as aesthetically foreign and beautiful to me as a Henry James period drama.
New this year to the farm is the Gobbo Di Nizzia cardoon. Also known as wild artichoke or artichoke thistle, cardoons are hard to find harvested – even at farmers’ markets. This makes them all the more appealing to grow – just check to see if they’re classified as a restricted weed in your area, as they are in parts of Victoria.
Where growing them is permitted, the aesthetic of the plant alone justifies planting it as an ornamental. This herbaceous perennial shows off like an extra in Jurassic Park, with silvery leaves and a pearlescent rib – which is the edible part of the plant, along with the thistle. There is also an heirloom variety, the Rouge d’Alger, that blushes in the cold. In fact, when cardoons fell out of favour gastronomically, the plant was still grown for its striking proportions – florists love cardoon thistles in their arrangements.
But how does it taste? I grew up eating bitter vegetables, a common element in Thai, Chinese and Japanese cuisines, so I politely scoff when people suggest that cardoons or artichokes are bitter.
Mate, you weren’t ever made to eat a raw bitter melon; do that and then come talk to me about bitterness (actually I love them now).
Cardoon? Positively sweet! And excuse me while I revert to my most overused expression: “It’s really good for you!” It’s rich in most of the B vitamins and several minerals – who wouldn’t benefit from that?
Generally, cardoons are more common in European cuisines which is the only context I’ve eaten them. A multifunctional plant, its uses include being a vegetarian source of enzyme coagulant for cheese production.
Lately, as the current crop is so prolific, I’ve been cooking it lightly, like I would any root vegetable, and eating it at every meal. My body is very happy with me.
Chewing on it raw is delicious, if a little woody – but that can be remedied by lightly stringing it, like you would a mature bean. I can imagine some noble Roman woman a couple of hundred years ago nibbling on it as a digestive, like they do now with fennel bulbs.
My friend Josh Lewis of Fleet Restaurant in Brunswick Heads, northern New South Wales, has served it braised slowly in olive oil, pepper, thyme, oregano and bay leaves with garfish cooked in chicken fat. Melted-y is how I would describe that, right-between-the-heart deliciousness!
The taste is reminiscent of an artichoke without all that effort to get to its heart. A good farmer will pick only the tender inner stalks; you can use it all the way up to where leaves start to form. I use a pairing knife, or if you have a sharp peeler, just run it over the edges of the stalk lengthwise to remove any little prickles.
You don’t need to do this if you want to braise it; with heat, the prickles magically get neutralised, much like the fine prickles on stinging nettles.
I’ll have to revisit the conversation with my food critic friend whether or not he orders cardoons when he sees it on a menu. I bet he does, to go with his fried thingy.
Braised cardoons and greens
Serves: 4 as a side, 2 as mains, or 1 with leftovers
3 tbs rendered fat, duck, chicken, pork or beef fat, or olive oil if you’re vegetarian2 tbs extra-virgin olive oil, with extra to finish off at the end6 cloves garlic, minced finely3 tender cardoon stalks, chopped into 5cm pieces1 bunch silverbeet (or any leafy brassica like rapini), chopped into 10cm pieces100ml water, if your vegetables are not excreting enough liquid to braise3 tbs chardonnay vinegar1 bunch parsley, finely chopped1 lemon, zest and juice (Meyers are great for this one)Melt the fat in a large saucepan that has a lid to it. When heated through add the olive oil. Brown the garlic and add cardoons and the stalks of the silverbeet and push it around with a wooden spoon so the garlic and oil cover the vegetables.
Put the lid on it and let it steam for four to five minutes. Quite a bit of liquid will start to come out of the vegetables, but if it doesn’t add a little water. Add the silverbeet leaves, chardonnay vinegar and salt. Cover with the lid again for another five minutes. Add the chopped parsley.
With a zester, grate in the lemon zest and then squeeze in juice of the whole lemon.
Drizzle with extra-virgin olive oil and never want for anything ever again. Serve with a fried egg or as a side dish to larger meal.
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