My Nani, the Forager: Burdock or Cardoonis

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When I was young one of my favorite ways to eat greens was in my Nani’s cheesy burdock patties – or what she called cardoonis. Granted, these greens were trussed up with sharp and salty parmesan or asiago, and then bound with eggs and breadcrumbs and italian herbs. The stringy greens acted as mere vehicle for some of those classic flavors that often found themselves in various incarnations on my Sicilian-American grandmother’s extra-long dining room table. Starting in late spring she would send my cousins and I out to scour the edge of the yard looking for mid-sized but still tender stalks of the ubiquitous greens that grew wild all over Western New York (and in temperate climates around the world, where, in many places it remains a common edible). Burdock was a staple of the Sicilian diet, after all, and the fact that these greens were not only free, but could grow without human assistance was also a bonus to the woman who worked multiple jobs so she could help get the family business off the ground, both literally and figuratively, as she ran a small airport and flight instruction business with my Papa. She was also known to walk the runways at the airports, spotting edible puffball mushrooms that grew between the cracks in the asphalt, although by the time I came around her foraging was more of a frugal habit than a necessary way to save money.

I regret that Nani never taught me to forage, or really to cook for that matter; so much knowledge besides how to best choose stalks of cardoonis died with her, now almost twenty years ago. She was convinced that my generation would not need to know how to forage and garden and cook. And as a younger grandchild, I did not get to observe quite so much as my oldest cousin, Jen. However, when Jen visited me recently, we decided to take ourselves foraging – in a (very) large city park, nonetheless – and then she would show me how she remembered Nani cleaning and cooking the burdock. Once we were again attuned to identifying burdock, it did not take us long to fill a bag full of mid-sized stalks. Next we stripped off the leaves (although other cultures do eat the young leaves as well), then once at home we soaked them, then boiled them to tenderize. After draining the now-stringy stalks we shredded, seasoned and fried the clumps of greens into little patties, heavy with cheese and breadcrumbs, but with the familiar earthy tang I hadn’t tasted in decades.

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