My long-time friend, Dominic Orlando, is a gifted director and writer and an "off th -boat" Italian. He was kind enough to offer up this unique take on the Feast which I found fascinating...
One "fish" that was eaten heartily at our family's version of La Vigilia was a variety called "Li pisci di li muntagni," which is Calabro-Sicilian for "the Fish of the Mountains." It was a seasonal dish that was tastiest because it grew best during the winter. It "grew" because it wasn't a real fish, but a vegetable—the beloved carduni (aka cardi, cardoon or cardone).
The cardoon, which looks like an over-sized gray-green celery stalk, is a relative of the artichoke, found all over the Mediterranean. If you're a lover of its spiny leaf blossom cousin, then you'll flip for the cardoon— it's like eating bigger portions of artichoke hearts and trunks.
The reason it was called "fish" by Southern Italians and Sicilians was because of its preparation and presentation, and some say, even the taste.
I hadn't eaten it in a number of years, but was fortunate to find it fresh at the local Italian deli just last week. A few days later I also found it available at the area grocery Albertson's. So, I bought a big stalk and as a treat for my aged mother I attempted to prepare it according to my late father's simple recipe.
Carduni Fritti - Fried Cardoons
First, remove the leaves, strings and thorny parts of the cardoon (using a carrot peeler if you have to), then rub with your fingers to remove the fine downy powder covering the stalks (you may want to do this with a cloth or paper towel because the down will blacken your fingers). Then cut the stalks to trout-sized lengths (some people prefer bite-size), putting them directly into water and lemon juice so the stalks don't darken—it's probably the same natural chemical that stains the fingers.
After preparing all the stalks, cook them in boiling water, with salt and lemon juice, until tender. My mom claims that it sometimes takes about a half hour because "discinu chi sunnu di la famigghia di lignu" or in English, "some say that they are a member of the wood family." Well, maybe some of the outer stalks—if they're too tough, just throw them away and only use the inner tenders.
￼The rest of the cooking procedure is easy, just pretend that you're having a fish fry. My father usually dredged the carduni stalks in seasoned flour, bread crumbs or the family favorite of Bisquick batter. Then he simply pan-fried them in some olive oil (deep frying is even better).
I went ahead and pan-fried them with Bisquick batter until golden brown and (surprisingly) grease-less. My mother said that it was best to eat them at room temperature, but the one I sneaked into my mouth piping hot was just fine!
￼My mother Rosaria enjoyed it the old-fashion way, capriciously down the gullet!
The next day, I took the leftover fried cardoons and prepared a sort of Cardoon Lasagna Casserole by stacking the fried stalks with layers of seasoned ricotta, mozzarella, grated romano and marinara sauce. The dish turned out delizioso! I will make several panfuls for the upcoming Vigilia at my sister's this year. There will be several of my vegetarian relatives there who will appreciate it.