Minestrone con Cardoni

So I found some cardoons (cardoni in Italian) before Thanksgiving at Whole Foods and got one. I’d never seen them for sale before – I’d only read about them. They were $1.99 apiece (cheap!) and they were gigantic – probably 18 inches long and more than 5 lbs. They look like some sort of monster celery and are related to artichokes. Never having cooked a cardoon before, I went out on the web to see if I could find any advice. The first thing I learned is that they need a bit of special handling, like artichokes do. After they’re cut, they need to be dropped into acidulated water to prevent browning, just like artichokes. (This cardoon didn’t brown with the same astonishing speed that an artichoke does, though.) I found a variety of recipes, mostly antipasto and baked dishes, and many of them involved eggs or anchovies. Since both those ingredients are outside my list, I kept looking. There were some soups that could be made vegetarian with the removal of several ingredients, and there was a recipe that was basically cardoons in white sauce. Having had plenty of white sauce this week, I decided to pass on that. I nosed around in the kitchen. The ingredients on hand included everything necessary to make minestrone, so I thought I’d use part of the cardoon for that – because if we didn’t like them terribly well, it wouldn’t be as if we had a whole dish of just cardoons to choke down.

It turned out to be insanely good. Michael and I both had seconds. The cardoons become very tender and contribute a wonderful light vegetal flavor similar to artichokes. I highly recommend you try this if you can find yourself a cardoon. If you can’t, artichoke bottoms would be the closest substitute – you’d probably need two cans’ worth, chopped in inch-square pieces.

For the soup:
1.5 c. small white beans (navy or great northern), soaked for 8 hours or overnight
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
abundant olive oil
red pepper flakes

3 carrots, chopped into 1 in. long pieces
3 ribs celery, chopped into 1 in. long pieces, leaves included (pull some more off the unused stalks for good measure – you’ll probably throw them away otherwise, right?)
3 cardoon ribs, strings removed (cut down the outside of the rib with a paring knife), then cut lengthwise to about the width of celery, then into 1 in. long pieces
1 – 28 oz. Can Muir Glen Roasted Tomatoes, chopped or food-processed briefly
1½ tsp. dried rosemary
plenty of black pepper

To finish:
a couple handfuls small pasta (shells, ditali, orzo, etc.)
2 c. rapini or broccoli raab greens, torn into 1 in. square pieces
the stems that went with the greens, cut into 1 in. lengths – split if thick
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 c. parsley, minced
a splash of red wine vinegar

Sauté the onion in plenty of olive oil over medium-high heat until translucent. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes to taste, and stir briefly. Add the remainder of the soup ingredients. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook until the beans are tender, 1 to 1½ hours. If using a pressure cooker, bring to pressure and cook for 25 minutes. Reduce pressure with running water.

Once the beans are cooked, add the pasta, greens, and stems and cook until the pasta is tender. Then add the garlic, parsley, vinegar, and salt to taste. Serve with crusty bread or croutons.

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