Cardoons will never win any prize in a "most beautiful vegetable" competition but with most things, appearance isn't everything. In Italy, they are called Cardi and you'll see them in just about every market and to my eye they always looked like they were on their last legs - Paalo charmingly described them as freaky celery.
They aren't celery but they are a member of the artichoke family and when cooked they do share a similar flavour. While you might be able to find them elsewhere being sold as a whole, these were just a collection of bundled stalks.
While the most well known use of cardoons is in the dish of Bagna Cauda - that is more suited to younger stems which are more tender and less bitter than these older stalks.
I've decided to keep it simple yet traditional and served baked in a Béchamel sauce. There's a bit of prep work involved before you can use them but I've detailed those processes in the recipe below.
Prepare the cardoons:
Trim the ends.
You'll then need to also trim the sides of each stalk - removing any side leaves and thorns if present.
Next you'll need to peel them to remove the stringy outer layer and finally cut them into even sized pieces - for this recipe I've cut them into batons about the length of your thumb.
It's important to have a pot of acidulated water ready while you prepare the cardoons - they do oxidise so once you've cleaned a section drop them immediately into the water to stop them from browning.
Put a large pot of salted water on to boil - when boiling add the prepared cardoons and simmer until tender. Depending on size this can take a half an hour or more.
Once cooked, drain them well before using.
Assemble the dish:
Cover the base of a baking dish with a thin layer of Béchamel.
Arrange the cooked cardoons over the top in a single layer then pour over the remaining Béchamel followed by a good sprinkling of cheese.
Bake in a preheated 180°C oven until golden and warmed through.
These make an excellent companion to roasted pork or chicken.