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Have no fear, cardoons are a veggie lover’s delight

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Updated: February 24, 2013 6:06AM

Walking through a dusty market in the Ourika Valley outside Marrakesh, Morocco, I came upon yellowish-green cardoons more than 3 feet long, reminiscent of prehistoric celery.

Cardoons look somewhat forbidding. Maybe that’s why Rick Gresh of David Burke’s Primehouse (616 N Rush) speculates that many of us are “scared to cook them.”

Native to the central Mediterranean, cardoons eventually migrated to Western Europe, where they were popular during the Middle Ages.

Available at Caputo’s (2400 N. Harlem, Elmwood Park), cardoons remain popular among Italians. Tony Priolo of Piccolo Sogno (464 N. Halsted) remembers preparing them with his Sicilian family: “My father used to pick them wild. We’d bread them, fry them in olive oil and serve them with tomato sauce.”

At City Tavern (1416 S. Michigan), John Caputo told me: “I serve them with aioli, for dipping.”

Sauces and dips help. The cardoon’s mild taste is reminiscent of its relative, the artichoke. Such subtle flavor is favored by Carrie Nahabedian at Naha (500 N. Clark), who confessed, “I love cardoons. I peel and braise them in the style of celery hearts. They’re very delicate but hearty.”

Don’t bother looking for cardoons on a raw veggie platter. They must be well-cooked.And take care when handling. Like thistles, cardoons have prickles that can hurt like hell if you don’t cut them off before they cut you.

We’ve grown cardoons in our home garden and prepared them several ways.

Our preferred technique is to chop stalks into bite-sized chunks, give them an egg wash, dredge in flour and deep-fry. Our cardoons seemed faintly bitter and were complemented by the fried crust and a soft red wine.

Few will champion cardoons as the tastiest of vegetables, though they certainly have as much flavor as, say, the much less-threatening zucchini or chayote. Their value, however, goes beyond being merely a novel side dish.

Cardoons are a source for vegetable rennet used to make cheese. Cynarin, the active ingredient in cardoons, seems to lower cholesterol and have detoxifying properties.

So, fight off the fear and enjoy this remarkable vegetable.

David Hammond is an Oak Park writer and contributor to WBEZ (91.5 FM) . E-mail

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