A few weeks ago I was walking past the farm-stand at Earthbound Farms in Carmel Valley and spotted two beautiful cardoon plants in full bloom. This is a rare sight, because while thistles, like artichokes, are well adapted to the cool, foggy climate of the Central Coast, cardoons have fallen out of fashion and are rarely commercially cultivated. You might still find cardoons used in a traditional Italian fritto misto or in a gratin, but few chefs take the time to go through the tedious preparation required to remove the layers of inedible strands of fiber. My interest in these cardoons was not the stalks, rather the bright purple stamens bursting out of the mature flowers. These stamens contain a powerful enzyme that is used in Portugal, Sicily and Spain to replace rennet in the cheese making process. Rennet is used to separate milk into curds and whey and is typically derived from a calf’s stomach. Just a few pulverized stamens from a cardoon flower are powerful enough to coagulate a cup of fresh milk. The resulting curds are smooth with a slightly bitter finish, reminiscent of fresh artichokes.
I was pleasantly surprised to receive a box filled with cardoon flowers from Earthbound Farm last week. When they removed the plants from their display, they remembered that I had commented on them and were kind enough to send them down the coast with our kitchen gardener Antoine. For me, getting my hands on a rare ingredient like this is far more exciting than getting truffles or foie gras. I wanted to feature a traditional Portuguese-style fresh cheese accompanied by different variations of artichoke and fennel. To start I cleaned baby artichokes from Pezzini farm and slow-braised them with olive oil, fennel, garlic and thyme. We shaved giant artichokes and then fried them to create thin, crisp chips. Fennel pollen, olive oil, wild chive flower, bronze fennel frond and red-clay sea salt finish the dish.