Cardoon capers: Skye Gyngell savours the rich sweetness of the 'artichoke thistle'

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Spiky it may be, but you can have all kinds of fun in the kitchen with the rich, sweet flavour of the 'artichoke thistle'

Pale, grey-green, with sharp, spiny leaves, the cardoon – also known as the "artichoke thistle" as it is, in fact, related to the artichoke – can grow to a height of 6ft and produces large purple-blue flowers (that can be eaten like artichokes). You may have seen cardoon at farmers' markets; it is usually sold as stalks cut from the plant, as this is the choice edible part.

The flavour resembles celery, but is richer and sweeter. I like to blanche the stalks briefly and then roast and serve alongside grilled meat, or with eggs and a salad.

Cardoons grow almost throughout the year but their elegant flavour is suited best to winter cooking. When buying, look for strong leaves and stalks that seem firm.

To prepare for cooking, trim the stalks of all leaves and spiky bits, cut into three-inch lengths and place directly into acidulated water (water with a small amount of vinegar, lemon or lime juice added). Remove the stalks from the water, peel off the skin, then return to the water immediately. If you are roasting, the stalks need a brief par-boiling beforehand, so heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4 and boil a large pan of well-salted water. Drop in the stalks and cook for a couple of minutes. Drain and lay in a baking tray, season with a little salt and pepper and drizzle some olive oil on top. Toss to coat well in the oil and roast in the oven for 40 minutes or until golden-brown and tender. Now your cardoon is ready for use in the recipes shown below.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627

Gratin of endive and roasted cardoon

This gratin is easy to make once the cardoons have been roasted. It's perfect by itself but also delicious with fillet of beef.

Serves 6

2 Belgium endives
250g/8oz roasted cardoons
200ml/7fl oz crème fraîche or double cream
1tbsp Dijon mustard
1 small bunch of thyme, leaves only
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
150g/5oz soft white breadcrumbs
80g/3oz freshly grated Parmesan
50g/2oz unsalted butter
Parsley, finely chopped to serve

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4.

Slice the endives in half lengthwise and then each half into three. Arrange the sliced endives and roasted cardoon in a buttered earthenware gratin dish. Place the crème fraîche, mustard and thyme in a saucepan over a gentle heat. Bring to a simmer and cook for six to seven minutes to slightly reduce, thicken and flavour the cream. Remove from the heat and pour over the vegetables. Mix together the breadcrumbs and cheese in a bowl and scatter over the top. Melt the butter and pour it over, then bake in the oven until golden and bubbling. Serve garnished with finely chopped parsley.

Cardoon and Jerusalem artichoke with bagna cauda

I have eaten this dish in the snow-capped mountains above Turin; it is Italian regional cooking in its most heartfelt form. I prefer it with a type of cardoon known in Italy as "gobi" (or hunchback), which is curled as opposed to straight in shape – its taste is the same, but its shape is somehow far more beautiful and adds a rustic authenticity. Bagna cauda is a simple, warm sauce from the Piedmont region.

Serves 4

For the bagna cauda

125ml/4fl oz extra-virgin olive oil
6 cloves of garlic, peeled but left whole
125g/4oz unsalted butter
8 salted anchovies

For the vegetables

12 Jerusalem artichokes
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
1tbsp olive oil
12 stalks of roasted cardoon

Heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6.

For the bagna cauda, place the olive oil, garlic, butter and anchovies in a saucepan, place over the lowest heat and cook for 40 minutes, stirring every now and then until the anchovies have dissolved and the garlic is meltingly soft. The warm sauce will look slightly separated, but don't worry – this is about maximum flavour.

Scrub the Jerusalem artichokes under cold running water to remove any dirt, but don't bother to peel them – their skin is delicious. Cut in half lengthwise and place on a roasting tray. Season lightly with salt and pepper and drizzle with a little of the olive oil. Place on the middle shelf and roast in the oven for 35-40 minutes or until the artichokes are tender and golden-brown. Serve with the roasted cardoon and bagna cauda. '

Leek and cardoon risotto

Serves 4

1 litre/13/4 pints chicken stock
3tbsp unsalted butter
1 leek, cleaned and diced, white part only
250g/8oz risotto rice (arborio or carnaroli)
125ml/4fl oz dry white wine
300g/10oz roasted cardoon
6tbsp freshly grated Parmesan
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring the chicken stock to a simmer in a saucepan. Place a heavy-bottomed casserole dish over a medium heat. Melt one tablespoon of butter in the pot, add the leeks and cook for four minutes, until translucent. Raise the heat slightly and add the rice, stirring often. Toast the rice for about five minutes. When it turns from opaque to shiny, add the wine. Cook until it has evaporated and add enough stock to barely cover the rice.

As the rice absorbs the stock, add more in small increments, keeping the heat at a simmer. It is crucial to limit the amount so as to maintain the emulsion the stock forms with the starch released through the initial toasting of the rice. Stirring often will also encourage a final creamy consistency. The rice and stock should bubble lazily. Rice that cooks too quickly will become fat and too soft; too slowly and the result will be mushy.

After 15 minutes the rice should almost be cooked. At this point, add the cardoon and cook for three to five minutes. Taste the rice for texture; when it is still slightly chewy but yielding to the bite, add the remaining two tablespoons of butter and the Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper to taste. The consistency should be almost pourable to the point where there is no separation of rice and stock. Spoon into warmed bowls and serve.

Scrambled eggs with cardoons

I like to scramble eggs slowly over a very low heat with nothing more than organic eggs and unsalted butter. The result is simple but shamelessly suave.

Serves 4

80g/3oz unsalted butter
8 large organic, free-range eggs
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Stalks of roasted cardoon to serve

Cut the butter into slivers. Crack the eggs into a bowl, add half the butter, a pinch of salt and a little pepper. Beat to combine. Melt a few more slivers of butter in a small non-stick pan – remove from the heat once it has melted and pour in the eggs. Return to the lowest heat, stirring continuously. Add the remaining butter bit by bit and cook for eight to 10 minutes – the result should be soft, glossy and the consistency of curd. If the eggs begin to cook in folds, the heat is too high; remove the saucepan every 15 seconds or so to reduce the heat. Serve alongside the warm cardoon.

The Forager by Wendy Fogarty

Petersham's food sourcer on the best places to find cardoon...

Essex, England: The Audley End Walled Kitchen Garden has recreated its historic Victorian kitchen garden in Saffron Walden, where cardoons are freshly picked. Tel: 01799 522 148

Versailles, France: Cardoons from the King's Kitchen Garden at the palace are available from its boutique at 4 Rue Hardy, Versailles. www.potager-du-roi.fr

Piedmont, Italy: Elena Rovera's Cascina del Cornale sells the region's now-rescued "hunchback" cardoons. www.cornale.it

Bristol, England: Jekka McVicar sells cardoon plants in one-litre pots or as seed. www.jekkasherbfarm.com

Kent, England: Cardoons feature in the culinary border at Iden Croft Herbs in Staplehurst, and are available to buy online as plants and seeds. www.herbs-uk.com

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