Baked Umbrian Cardoons

Gobbi al Forno

This dish is rather like a layered lasagne but uses cardoons instead of pasta. It is a great pity that this delicious winter/spring vegetable (the stems of the plant are eaten) is not grown more extensively in the UK: it is enjoyed all over Umbria, the Abruzzi and Lazio. If you have never seen or cannot get cardoons, thick celery - as white as you can find - is the only possible substitute. Serve as a lunch or supper dish with a salad and plenty of crusty bread.

Ingredients

  • 1⅓ lb (800 g) cardoons or thick sticks white celery
  • juice of ½ lemon
  • 2 oz (50 g) butter plus extra for greasing
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, peeled and chopped
  • 11 oz (300 g) minced beef or pork or lamb
  • 1 oz (25 g) dried porcini mushrooms, soaked for 15 minutes in tepid water, drained and chopped, or 4 oz (100 g) fresh mushrooms, thinly sliced
  • 5 oz (150 g) canned tomatoes, drained, de-seeded and coarsely chopped
  • 8 fl oz (250 ml) chicken or meat stock
  • salt and pepper
  • oil for deep-frying
  • 3 tablespoons plain white flour
  • 2 eggs, beaten
  • 4 oz (100 g) Fontina or mozzarella or Edam cheese
  • 4 oz (100 g) Parmesan cheese, grated

Method

Prepare the cardoons or celery. Remove any stringy bits, cut into sections no more than 3/2 inches (9 cm) in length and wash very carefully. In the case of the cardoons, drop the cut vegetables into a basin of cold water to which you have added the lemon juice to prevent them from turning black - like artichokes, they have a very high iron content. This is not necessary if you are using celery.

Heat the butter and olive oil in a pan and fry the onion in it until soft. Add the minced meat, brown it all over, add the drained mushrooms, then stir in the tomatoes. Add about three quarters of the stock, season with salt and pepper and cover. Leave to simmer for about 45 minutes or until reduced and thickened.

Pre-heat the oven to gas mark 6, 400°F (200°C).

Heat the oil for deep-frying until a piece of bread dropped into it sizzles instantly. Dry the cardoons or celery sticks carefully, toss them in flour, then in beaten egg, and fry them until crisp and well browned. Drain them very thoroughly on kitchen paper and sprinkle lightly with salt.

Cut the Fontina, mozzarella or Edam into ½ inch (1 cm) cubes. Butter an ovenproof dish about 9 inches (23 cm) square. Arrange a layer of fried cardoons or celery on the bottom of the dish, cover with a layer of meat sauce and sprinkle with cubed and grated cheese. Lay another layer of cardoons or celery on top and continue to layer the dish as described until you have used up all the ingredients, including the remaining stock, finishing with a layer of cubed and grated cheese. Bake the dish in the centre of the oven for 15 minutes or until it is heated through and all the cheese has melted.

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