If you see something in Italy in winter with stems like giant celery, it’s probably a cardoon. The cardoon is the same plant as an artichoke, except that artichoke cultivars have been selected to have large edible flowers and cardoons to have large edible stems. In Italy they’re called or cardo or gobbo, depending on where you are, or cardo-gobbo if you’re in Piedmont and grow the Slow Food presidium Nizza Monferrato variety. Gobbo means hunchbacked and refers to the curved stems.
One month before the cardoon is mature, the farmer bends the stems over and covers them with soil to blanch them and give them a sweeter flavour. It’s very labour-intensive and now you see many straight stems because commercial market gardeners just slip a paper sleeve over the stems to make them turn white.
The stems taste very similar to the flowers, and since you get much more to eat from a stem, a cardoon makes a more economic and equally delicious side dish. Cardoons are usually steamed or boiled. You pull off the strings; I find a carrot peeler does the trick. Cut them into finger-length chunks, boil them in salted water (with some lemon peel to keep them from discolouring) until not quite tender and drain them. They’re then ready to stew in oil with some Italian sausage meat scattered over the top (Tuscans never missing a chance to add meat to a good vegetarian dish), a bit of stock and a sprinkling of parmigiano. Cover and cook on a gentle flame until done.