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Cardos a la Navarra | Cardoons in the Navarra Style

Rosa and I have a friend from Navarra who is always raving about the great vegetables and vegetable dishes from the area where he grew up. Among other vegetables, cardoons are quite famous from the region. Cardoons only are available for a brief few weeks every year, usually in December, and for many people they are an essential food for Christmas. They always feel special to me, because I am lucky if I can find them even two or three times a year where I live in California. In this traditional dish, the cardoons are served with in a simple sauce made from a flavorful stock, and a sofrito of onions and garlic, along with diced up pieces of jamón. Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of this. It will add a special something to any meal, as a side to roasted meat, or a simply prepared fish.

When you see cardoons at the market, they will look like a lot like a strangely rustic bunch of celery. Cardoons are a member of the thistle family, closely related to the more familiar artichokes. While artichokes are cultivated for their flowers, cardoons are cultivated for their stems. Despite their simple appearance, they require a fair bit of work to prepare, but the effort is more than worth it. Cardoons are extremely fibrous, and need to be thoroughly peeled to get the stringy fibers out. They also oxidize and discolor like artichokes, so as you prep them, they need to be kept in acidulated water (a lemon squeezed into the water works well). Finally, cardoons can have a little bit of a bitter flavor, and for this reason, they are generally boiled first before being cooked in various ways. The bitterness comes out in the boiling water, which is discarded, and the cardoons are left with a very pleasant flavor reminiscent of artichokes.

I am presenting a slightly updated take on this very standard Navarran preparation for Cardoons. The traditional method is to cook down the onions and garlic as a sofrito, and then add some flour to make a roux to thicken the sauce. I don’t really like using roux for this sort of thing unless I have to, as it tends to mute flavors and can get a glue-like consistency at times. Instead, I simply blend up the sofrito with some of the stock. It still thickens the sauce, but with better flavor and texture. If you prefer the traditional way, add a generous spoonful of flour when the sofrito is done, cook the rawness out of the flour for a couple minutes, and then slowly stir in the stock, breaking up any lumps. If you use the flour to thicken, there is no need to purée the sauce.


2 lbs fresh cardoons (about 1 whole bunch)

Juice from 1 lemon

100g (3 ½ ounces) jamón scraps, diced in ¼” cubes (about ½ cup)

Note: use prosciutto if you cannot find jamón

1 small onion, peeled and cut in small dice

2 or 3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

Olive Oil for cooking

1 cup flavorful broth, and more, as needed (can be vegetable, chicken, or meat based)

Salt TT

1. Separate the cardoon stalks from the head, and scrub them under cold water to remove all of the dirt. Add the lemon juice to a large bowl, and fill about halfway with water. Working quickly, use a peeler or sharp paring knife to peel all of the tough fibers from a stalk. Discard the fibers, slice the stalk into 1” lengths, then place the prepared pieces in the lemon water. Repeat for all of the remaining stalks.

2. Get a large pot of water boiling, add a generous pinch of salt, and add the prepared cardoon pieces. Let the water return to a boil, and boil for about 5 minutes. Remove the cardoons from the water, and place in ice water to cool down quickly. Discard water, and set the cardoons aside until needed.

3. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed sauté pan or cazuela on medium low heat. When hot, add enough oil to coat the bottom, along with the jamón. Cook, stirring regularly, until the jamon has rendered out extra fat, and has lightly browned. Remove the jamón from the pan and set aside. Add the onions and garlic to the pan, a bit more oil, if necessary, along with a pinch of salt. Sauté, stirring regularly, until the onion is meltingly soft, but not browned.

4. Slowly add the stock, scraping up any stuck-on bits from the bottom. Bring up to a simmer and let cook for 2 or 3 minutes. Blend up all of the sofrito and liquid together using a blender or hand blender, and set aside.

5. Return the jamón to the pan, along with a little bit of oil and the prepared cardoons. Stir together, then add in the blended sauce. Bring up to a simmer on medium heat, and let simmer, all together for about 5 minutes. Taste, and adjust seasoning if needed. If the sauce gets too thick, add a bit more broth or water. If the sauce is too thin, simmer a little longer to reduce. Serve hot, immediately.

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