Baked cardoons

fresh cardoons, a typical winter vegetable in Central Italy

This is a recipe which smells intensely of Christmas to me. It reminds me of my mum, perennially standing in her tiny kitchen, creating complicated wonders. Oddly, she hardly made a sound while cooking for a large party, I could hear her breathing.
It reminds me of how my father and I would sneak into the kitchen to steal the fried stems, subtly aromatic, tender as butter. Those and the mellow leftovers we enjoyed the most, as the rest got confused in the abundance of the holiday banquet.

 to clean cardoons, remove the outer fibers and inner membrane of the stem

Artichoke and leafy cardoon are two varieties of the same plant . The first is cultivated for its immature inflorescence – also called globe – and the second for its fleshy stems. The taste of cardoon is reminiscent of celery and artichoke with a hint of bitter which is eliminated by blanching. When buying, make sure to pick those with white stems and without signs of rusty spots

  • 2 kg ( 4 lb) fresh cardoons, outer damaged leaves removed
  • 1 lemon
  • 2 eggs
  • 100 gr (3 oz) all-purpose flour
  • 250 gr ( 1/2 lb) mild cows cheese like caciotta (use fresh Asiago if not available)
  • 1 recipe ragù
  • 1 recipe bechamel (white sauce)
  • 60 gr (2 oz) grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese

This is a work intensive recipe, I suggest to prepare the cardoons, blanch them and fry them on the first day and make the tomato, bechamel sauce and assemble the parmigiana on the second day.
Day 1
To clean cardoons,  strip the fibres from the stems with a pairing knife, cut them into 5 cm (2 in.) pieces and  plunge them  in cool water that has been acidulated with the juice of half a lemon.
Add the other half of the lemon to a pan of water you will use to cook the stems. Bring the water to the boil, add 1/2 tablespoon of salt.  Blanch until tender but still firm, 20 to 30 min. Meanwhile whisk the eggs in a large bowl.
Drain and rinse in cold water, pat dry and dredge in flour. Transfer the floured cardoons in the eggs and deep fry them in vegetable oil until lightly golden.
Make sure to work in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan. Drain on paper towels and season with salt and pepper.
If you don’t like to fry, line the largest roasting tin you own with parchment paper. Place the cardoons well spaced on a single layer and bake until colored in a preheated oven at 250 °C (480 °F) , turning once.
Day 2
Make the tomato and bechamel sauce. Slice the caciotta. Prepare all ingredients on your work-top. Butter a 20 x 30 cm (8 x 12 in) gratin dish. You should have enough cardoons to make three layers.
Arrange the cardoons in a single layer at the bottom of the pan. Cover with one third of the sliced cheese and sprinkle one tablespoon of the grated cheese. Drizzle approx. 3 tablespoon of the tomato sauce and 1 and 1/2 tablespoon of the white sauce on the layer. Make sure to use modest amounts of sauce or you will end up with a gloppy soup!
Continue building up the layers ending with Bechamel which will form a lovely crust. Bake in preheated oven at 200° C (390° F) until golden and set, approx. 30 min.
The version  in the picture below is vegetarian and gluten-free. I substituted ragù with a simple tomato sauce and regular flour with rice flour. It’s every bit as delicious as the original one, just lighter.
Serves 6 as a main, 8 as a side

my mother’s Christmas treat, I miss you mum.


  1. You remembered!!! This is a different recipe than my Mom’s, but it sounds delicious. Thanks.

      • I certainly will try them. However, cardoons are not readily available in my area. I will search for them. Thanks.

  2. I’ve been seeing these creatures in the markets and wondering what they were! What a lovely recipe, and what sweet memories of your Mom.
    Some of my best memories of my Mom center also around the kitchen, where she spent a lot of time. Bread-making days were, I think, my favourites!

    • Ah Sandra, isn’t it a provilege to have cooking mothers? The kitchen is such a magical place, where love and dedication somewhat get expressed through simple gestures.

  3. This sounds great. I’m heading down to the market in about an hour (brrrr) and I’ll pick some up. Micha comes home from Germany tomorrow, so I’ll have them ready for him when he gets here <3

  4. I have yet to taste a cardoon. Have heard much about them, but have never even seen one. In this photo, they look similar to celery, but I think they are not. The photography is lovely and the recipe looks like it could be a meal with a side salad. YUMMY!
    It was your comment under the last photo that has me emotional. My mom and dad have been married for 61 years:81 and 82 years old. I cannot begin to imagine your loss.
    Merry Christmas, Letizia.

    • Dear Valerie, you are right, they do look like celery when cleaned, but the taste is closer to artichoke, a littleon the wild side. Indeed this type of parmigiana makes a wonderful meal served with a salad or even better preceed by a soup. How wonderful you still have both your parents, enjoy every moment!

  5. It is a beautiful thing to associate a dear loved one, like your mom, with a wonderful treat!
    God bless you.
    Buon Natale e tutto il meglio!

  6. Cardoons are hard to find where I live now, but whenever I do see them, I immediately grab them up. I’ve never tried them made this way, however—sounds exquisite.

  7. Ciao Letizia! Felice anno nuovo! Spero che abbia passato una bella vacanza con i tuoi…o forse siete andati in un posto esotico per natale?!?!? Spero che tutti i tuoi sogni siano realizzati quest’anno. Buona fortuna con la ristrutturazione della nuova parte della casa che avete acquistato! Un abbraccio forte! Melissa

    • Ciao Melissa
      meglio tardi che mai. Sì. siamo di ritorno dalle vacanze in Laos e Thailandia. Ammetto che mi sono tenuta un pò lontana dal computer, la spiaggia era troppo bella! Ora siamo di ritorno e si ricomincia a lavorare duro per realizzare i sogni! Carissimi saluti, Letizia

  8. I live in Morocco ( and have seen cardoons in the markets here. I had no idea how to cook them, but your recipe sounds lovely and reminds me that I should make melanzane parmigiana sometime too! Thanks!

    • thank you, I adore Morocco! We have been planning to return for a while now, hopefully soon. Meanwhile do try to cook the cardoons. It’s a bit f work but very rewarding. All the best, Letizia

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