An artichoke relative (obvious when you look at the two plants side by side), this has edible stems and thistle-like flowers. But most people grow it for its architectural good looks. It gets very tall (to 12 feet) in the Northwest. Do not plant in mild-winter climates, where it has become an invasive weed.

Ernst Kucklich

Prepare them simply for an unusual side dish

Jerry Anne Di Vecchio

If you've read Food Guide over the years, you've met my Italian mother-in-law, who lived on an artichoke ranch and cooked from the garden. Her culinary heritage was grounded in Tuscany.

So was her garden, where cardoons (in Italian, cardoni; in French, cardons) flourished. Cardoons, which look like overgrown celery bunches, are a close relative of the artichoke, but it's the large stalks, not the thistlelike flower buds, that are edible.

The plants grow in the cool season wherever artichokes do; you'll find them now in markets that feature Mediterranean vegetables.

Cardoons are sadly ignored these days, except by a shrinking number of cooks who know how to deal with them. I've read recipes so complicated that a novice would be discouraged.

But my mother-in-law's approach was straightforward: She went to the garden and cut a few broad, silvery stalks. Back in the kitchen, she rinsed the individual stalks and trimmed off the leaves and any discolored sections.

Then, with a sharp knife (a peeler tends to clog), she cut the coarse, stringy fibers off the stalk backs, discarded any pithy portions, and cut the vegetable into large pieces or ½-inch dice.

Cardoons, like artichokes, discolor when cut and taste bitter when raw. Cooking solves both problems. My mother-in-law had two approaches. For both, she dropped the trimmed cardoons into a generous amount of boiling water. Then she either simmered them until creamy to bite (30 to 40 minutes) or boiled them just until tender-crisp (about 15 minutes), drained them, and finished simmering the vegetable in broth with seasonings such as peppercorns, fennel seed, and coriander seed.

For a hot dish, sizzle cooked cardoons in butter or olive oil (with or without garlic and onions); boil with a little whipping cream to glaze, then sprinkle with parmesan cheese; add to stews; or dip large pieces in batter and fry for fritters (my mother-in-law's favorite treatment).

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