The affectionate term for them is gobbi—hunchbacks. I’m talking about cardone, that distant cousin to artichokes. A stalky plant with raised ribs, cardone resemble celery. Like the artichoke, cardone is a member of the thistle family. Just seeing (or hearing) the word “thistle,” if you know the prickly plant, you feel a wave of caution. Handle with care, yes, but eat them with great pleasure.
Why hunchback? Cardone come in two varieties—one that grows 7-8 feet tall, the other that curves as it grows and bends toward the ground. Hence the nickname. My guess is that the nickname, gobbi, is now the generic, affectionate term for them in Italy. (When I asked an Italian chef friend once if he liked gobbi, he said no. Why? Because, he said with a smile, he didn’t want to be a gobbo.)
Shopping at the fresh air market in San Marino one fall, my pal Marco handed me a bunch of gobbi and said to always choose the white ones. They’re ready to cook. Here in the US, I find them in the Italian markets late fall and early winter. Just last week, for example.
You will see (and maybe feel) the family resemblance of gobbi to thistles. You need to pull away the leaves and trim the edge of the stalk. Then slice and boil them for a few minutes. More boiling time means less bitterness. More boiling time also tenderizes them. The mass I cooked today, for ten minutes or so, had 6-7 usable stalks. They make a fragrance you will not forget. Singular. Or as they say in Italian, molto particolare.
After boiling, strain them, chock them with cold water, and lay them on top of 3-4 diced and sauteed garlic cloves. I’ll also add just a little tomato, as I am a bit of tomatophile and I think I remember my mother-in-law adding tomato. Cook them on low heat for 30-45 minutes, adding water to prevent stickage.
For lunch today, I added some plain sausage. By plain I mean unsullied by fennel or pepperoncino. I want to taste gobbi. I browned the sausage in a frying pan, divided the links lengthwise, then added them to the gobbi for another 15 minutes of cooking time.
Like artichokes, gobbi have natural tannins. With a glass of red wine—total delight.