Cardoons everywhere

By | Books, Paris | 4 Comments

Springtime in Paris gets all the acclaim, the song April in Paris celebrates the beauty of that time of year – the classic rendition is by Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. While I love April in Paris too, November, a month that is often derided in the northern hemisphere, is a great time to be in this city. Not only are cardoons available in the markets, they are growing in the public parks, like the Luxembourg gardens.  Anyone who knows me, or who has read Bitter knows I’m passionate about cardoons.


I was thrilled to learn that Aya Brackett, the photographer for Bitter, won a prestigious award for her images in the book. You will be very impressed when you see who the judges were. Aya took a beautiful photograph of cardoons that you can see on her blog post, if you don’t have the book yet.

When I talk to journalists about my book Bitter, it’s often pointed out to me that cardoons are not easy to buy in the USA. This is true, but it shouldn’t be the case. Cardoons are grown commercially in California, so if there was more demand, they would be readily available. (By the way you can find cardoons at Fiesta Farms in Toronto). Think back 10 years, how easy was it to buy radicchio? Consumers can create the demand, so it is up to you to help me make cardoons more popular. It is true that they require work to prepare, but they’re are worth it. Their bitterness makes them perfect in rich braises, or cooked under a blanket of béchamel and cheese. You can also eat the inside stalks raw in salad or with a dip.

We should also celebrate cardoons by planting them in our gardens, so we can enjoy their beautiful silvery foliage.

Spring in Paris

By | Germany, Paris | One Comment
I love the spring in Paris. It arrives much earlier than in Toronto so by mid-April I’m enjoying favas, peas, baby onions and new potatoes. I tell everyone that I come to Paris in the spring just so I can eatwhite asparagus. Well, I’ve just discovered that I may have to change my travel plans. 
This year, with in days of touching down in the city of light, I sped off on a TGV to the Frankfurt suburbs. I remember from a previous trip to Berlin, in June, just how much the Germans like white asparagus. I now realise that they don’t just like white asparagus, they are crazy about them. From mid-April to mid-June, the official asparagus season, white asparagus are everywhere; on every menu, in every market and vegetable store, and for sale at roadside stands. Everybody it seems is eating them.
I love white asparagus, they have a subtle bitterness that makes them much more complex in flavour than green ones. They are one of the vegetables that star in my new book Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavor, with Recipes. In the book I explain how they are grown and harvested and why it makes them an expensive vegetable. I asked my friends to take me to the asparagus fields so I could see it all first hand. They took me to Schwetzingen, the capital of asparagus in this part of Germany. The main square is usually filled with farmers selling asparagus, but as this day there were only two stalls, that we later discovered were resellers. In the square is the bronze sculpture of a woman and her daughter selling asparagus pictured above. We wandered around the town and discovered an asparagus stall on a side street. We started chatting, they were selling asparagus from their farm. The older woman showed us the machine that cut and washed the newly harvested asparagus. The stalks are then grade by size, the fattest being the most expensive. She then proudly revealed that she was the grandmother of the “asparagus queen”. Her granddaughter Katharina had won the title two years in a row! I have a signed photo to prove it. We asked where we could see asparagus being harvested and she directed us to her farm.
At the end of these sandy fields we found the workers. My friends explained that we had been sent by the owner and wanted to see how they harvested the asparagus. Their words were wasted, the workers were from Poland and spoke no German. However, they were  very friendly and happy to show us how they picked the asparagus, they even let us try our hand.
Green and white asparagus are the same vegetable, white asparagus are blanched by burying the plant under a mound of sandy soil. White asparagus fields are defined by their mounds of sandy soil that are sometimes cover in plastic to protect the spears from the light. The workers prowl the fields scrutinizing the mounds, looking for any cracks in the soil. These indicate that a spear might be pushing through.  Using their hands they carefully dig into the soil to expose the spear, making sure they don’t damage any neighbouring ones. Using a metal tool with a wooden handle that resembles a chisel they cut the spear at the base. Then using a trowel they fill in the hole with the sandy soil. No high-tech equipment on this farm.
The asparagus are stacked in plastic boxes ready to be cut, washed, and graded. We bought a couple of kilos of the biggest, fattest ones, that were so fresh they squeaked when you rubbed them. The proud grandmother had told us she would not eat an asparagus that was more than 24 hours old. We ate ours that night with maltaise sauce, steamed new potatoes and lightly smoked ham, a perfect combination.
There are lots of ways to enjoy white asparagus, but perhaps the most unusual way I ate them on this trip was in an ice cream at Lohninger restaurant in Frankfurt. The dish was very pretty, the ice cream was served with a compote of rhubarb and raspberry garnished with a translucent slice of candied rhubarb.
And how did the ice cream taste? Exactly like white asparagus, but rich and creamy. It was delicious.

White Asparagus Part 2

By | Paris, white asparagus | No Comments
As I said in White Asparagus Part 1, I’d always just boiled my white asparagus. Well this asparagus season we went to Spring restaurant in Paris. My favourite taste in the meal was the grapefruit jelly for many reasons, but the white asparagus were delicious too and a revelation. Obviously  chef Daniel Rose shares my opinion that white asparagus should be big and fat, look at these beauties in the photo. You can read about Daniel and his restaurant in an article written by my friend Lesley Chesterman.
The asparagus at Spring were roasted, you can see their brown colouration and served in a shellfish sauce with sorrel leaves and toasted buckwheat. It was a great combination, however it was the idea of roasting them that hooked me. Of course I’d roasted green asparagus in the oven and even put them on the barbecue, but that was before I became an asparagus snob.
I talked to a couple of Parisian friends who pointed out that this was how Alain Passard cooked them at L’Arpège. I’ve eaten there twice, but never in the spring and perhaps never again, given the prices. Well I began with a heavy cast iron pan and butter. My husband did the trimming and peeling and I could only fit 6 fat asparagus in my pan. I added butter to the pan with a drizzle of olive oil and when the butter melted I added the asparagus. I “roasted” them turning them in the pan until they were nicely coloured, with the heat on medium. It took about  12 minutes. At this point my asparagus weren’t completely cooked, so I reduced the heat to low and covered the pan. After another 5 minutes or so, my asparagus were cooked, I tested them with a cake tester. I seasoned them with salt and pepper, added more butter to the pan, and when it began to melt, I served them with the butter and pan juices.
They were delicious, so much so I’m going to have to buy a bigger pan so I can share this treat with friends. And I guess I really pan-roasted and steamed them, if we want to be exact.

White Asparagus Part 1

By | Paris, white asparagus | 2 Comments
I’m an asparagus snob. For me asparagus are white and fat. You have to peel white asparagus, so you want something left when you finish and I’d rather eat three fat ones than half a dozen skinny ones.  When I first came to France eons ago, green asparagus, the only ones I was familiar with at the time, were no where to be found. You could find skinny wild green asparagus, but everything else is white. Today green are everywhere. To my taste white asparagus are superior to green. They are the same plant except the white ones are buried under a mound of sandy soil. This protects them from the light and stops the formation of chlorophyl resulting in a pure asparagus taste, free of the grassiness of the green ones.
One of the main reasons we come to Paris in the spring is to eat white asparagus. I just cook them, my husband does all the work. They must be trimmed at the base and carefully peeled, a small knife is the best tool. You can see how much of the stringy outside he removes, that’s why you buy fat ones.

Now there are always instructions to tie asparagus into neat bundles and steam them standing up. Well bundles are a good idea if you are cooking large numbers, and as for standing them up, how many people own a special steamer for asparagus? I usually cook 12 to 16 at a time so I let them float around in my roasting pan. The roasting pan, on an oval burner, is ideal. You can move the pan so most of the heat is concentrated to one side. (You can also do this with frying pan on a regular burner if you’re careful). Then you place the asparagus in the pan so their bases are over the heat and the tips are further away.  The tips of white asparagus are more robust than green and the stalks are uniform, which makes them easier to cook.

Put the asparagus in the pan to make sure they fit in a single layer and cover with cold water. Remove the asparagus, add about 1 teaspoon of salt and a good pinch of sugar to the pan. Bring the water to a boil, add the asparagus, bases towards the heat and lower the heat so that the water simmers. No matter what you read you need to cook white asparagus longer than green, at least 15 and maybe 25 minutes. The fatter and the older they are the longer they’ll take to cook.

Test by piercing the base of the asparagus with a cake tester, or a fine skewer. You want them cooked NOT crunchy. You also don’t want them overcooked and mushy. Pay attention.  Drain them well on a towel, to help absorb the water, and keep them warm if you plan to serve them hot. You can cook them ahead of time and reheat them in the oven.

Asparagus are often served cold with mayonnaise, or a vinaigrette. My friend Caroline makes a sauce with an egg yolk, mustard and crème fraîche, which she often “lightens” with a stiffly beaten egg white. I prefer them hot and I make a sauce maltaise, a variation on hollandaise with blood orange juice. The blood orange and white asparagus seasons overlap and they match brilliantly. This photo show another good mach for asparagus – scallops Here they are both served with a blood orange butter sauce. Just reduce the zest and juice of a blood orange down to a couple of tablespoons, add 1 tablespoon whipping cream and then whisk in about 100g of unsalted butter, making sure it emulsifies into the sauce and does not melt in.

Simmering asparagus is my main method for cooking this fabulous vegetable, but this spring I discovered another thanks to a dinner at Spring restaurant. More soon.


By | Cardoons, Paris | 2 Comments
One of my favourite places in Paris is the Luxembourg Gardens. This photo was taken in the autumn when cardoons were part of the flower borders, I’ve also seen them in Parc Montsouris. I wanted to sneak back late in the evening to harvest a few stalks, but the gardens, wisely,  are closed at night.
As you can see from the cardoon flowers they’re a close relative of the artichoke. The cardoon heads, before they flower, are edible, however cardoons are grown for their large fleshy stalks. I love their earthy, artichoke taste. The dried flowers provide a vegetarian rennet for making cheese. 

Cardoons are not easy to find, but at the beginning of the month, they turned up in my market right there next to the puntarelle, I love living in an Italian neighbourhood, and of course they came from California. Now there’s no denying cardoons take work. While the big outside leaves, that can have prickles, and the tops are trimmed, the remaining leaves, which are very bitter, must be removed. Then the coarse strings on the outside of the stems need to be pulled off, use a knife or a vegetable peeler, it’s just like stringing celery. As cardoons brown quickly, place the prepared stems in a bowl of acidulated water.

Then cook them in boiling salted water until tender, they take about 25 minutes, depending on their size and age. Once cooked, drain them and dress them with a vinaigrette, add to a potato salad, or cover them with cheese sauce and make a gratin. A good way for a novice to try them.

In Piedmont cardoons are served raw with bagna calda, a dip made with lots of garlic, anchovies, olive oil and butter. The cardoons in North America are larger and more bitter so most people prefer them cooked. It’s not the bitterness that stops me, I love bitter melon, it’s the texture of the larger stems that are often hollow in the centre. The small, velvety, centre stems, if you take the time to peel them completely, are crunchy, juicy and pleasantly bitter. Perfect to dip in bagna calda.

Cardoons deserve to be more popular. If you see them in your market give them a try, they may look like celery on steroids, but they’re a much more interesting and complex vegetable.