‘Twas the day before Dinner for Pretty Special Guests. You know, one of those meals for which you concoct dozens of potential menus in your mind before finally, nervewrackingly, committing to just one. But rather than hurrying through page proofs, e-mails, and voice messages so I could head home to tend to cleaning and chopping and pacing and Champagne chilling, I was sitting in my office staring at the lumpy sack of strange-looking tubers—sunchokes—that were plunked, quite unceremoniously, beneath my desk.
I’d swung by the greenmarket on my way to work that morning with one thing in mind: the homely looking Helianthus tuberosus. I’d been flirting with these curious tubers since they’d shown up at the market several weeks prior, looking for an excuse to try them. But they hadn’t exactly exuded much charm, not with their oddly knobby, dirty appearance that suggests a madcap cross-pollination science project—part potato, part ginger root—gone terribly wrong. Sunchokes also answer to Jerusalem artichoke, despite bearing neither a relation to Jerusalem nor a resemblance to an artichoke.
Not really knowing what to make of them—or, for that matter, with them—I hadn’t summoned enough gumption to try them. Until now. I’d been thinking that my dinner party—for folks with rather traditional predilections—would not be satisfying without something at least a little potato-y. These Jerusalem artichokes, er, sunchokes, piled up next to crates of russets and fingerlings, looked like potatoes. And the little handwritten sign at the market assured me that they behave like potatoes. So I’d lingered a little that morning, sidling up to the chefs in their whites who were buying them by the bushel and soliciting their take on them. Then I crammed sunchoke after misshapen sunchoke into a bag before I could change my mind.
As I sat at my desk and stared, I pondered my options. Roasted. Mashed. Pickled. Pan-seared. Souped. What I’d been thinking was that I wanted something sufficiently traditional, but maybe just a little outlandish. Something to surprise my guests yet not upstage everything else. Something…simple. So I did the only thing I could think to do: I asked the advice of the only person whose palate I truly trust, a Pulitzer prize-winning food critic. Er, the only Pulitzer prize-winning food critic, Jonathan Gold.
Turns out he’d already thought along those same lines that past Thanksgiving—which is to say, sunchokes prepared simply. We bantered about the relative merits of slicing the knobby things or leaving them whole, tossing them with nothing more than olive oil or indulging them in a bath of duck fat, subjecting them to the blast of a hot oven or a more temperate romp on the stovetop. Then he offered perhaps the most critical part of sunchoke cookery: not to even bother peeling the knobby little suckers (and half of your knuckles along with them). Just wait, he said. The skins turn thin and crisp, crunchy even, after cooking. (You can, he continued, also peel them using the old truc for ginger, scraping the skin off with the tip of a spoon. It’s quick, he added, but you don’t have to.) Decision made, I thanked my personal Sunchoke Deity profusely. Then I plodded through my page proofs, grabbed my potato-wannabes, and practically danced all the way home.
They were lovely, that initial batch. The heat rendered them crisp outside, tender within, and intriguingly sweet throughout, just as I’d been assured. That was three years ago, yet I still remember that side dish like it was part of last night’s dinner. The skins had turned to parchment while the interior had puffed like little pommes duchesse.
Since then, I’ve come to have quite an intimate relationship with sunchokes, deviating from the Sunchoke Deity’s foolproof technique and succumbing to all manner of my original temptations. Steamed. Sautéed. Turned into soup. Sliced and crisped in oil. Boiled, although I advise against it. Even shaved raw atop salads, crisp as a water chestnut. Like potatoes, sunchokes seem to be an everyday sort of tuber. Yet something in their innate tuberosity makes them moister, sweeter, able to inflate like jumbo marshmallows over a campfire. But let’s be clear about one thing. It’s roasting that’s my preferred approach, the one I keep coming back to. After all, Sunchoke Deity ought to know. And, as promised, I’ve never once bothered to remove their skins before cooking. Heck, if they’re papery thin, they can even be ignored.
What I’ve also learned is that, as with most greenmarket finds, sunchokes have a season. They’re available in ample amounts during cooler months, but they’re rather maddeningly elusive to find after the cusp of cold. (I know what you’re thinking. But you can forget about stockpiling them. They don’t keep particularly well.) For some of us, it’s a little sad when spring eventually comes around. Sunchokes tend to have that kind of effect on people.
They can have another type of effect on some people, one that’s a little trickier to romanticize. It tends to happen to those with delicate constitutions, and it’s often been indelicately described as creating a troubling, er, rumbling wind in one’s belly. In modest measure, mind you, there’s rarely any ill effect. The problem is, when trying them for the first time, most folks know no moderation. While I may have perfected my cooking techniques, I’ve yet to comprehend how to gracefully caution guests at the table when sunchokes are on the menu. So I’ve refrained from sharing them since that night, instead relegating sunchokes to weeknight suppers here and there. Ought I to lose my girlish bashfulness and introduce others to their charms? Is it worth it? You tell me.
Adapted from Jonathan Gold
Serves 2 to 4
Sunchokes vary rather dramatically in size and shape. If yours are really big and gangly and grouped together in clusters, you may want to break them apart with your hands into more manageable pieces. On the other hand, if your sunchokes are dainty and diminutive and the size of a large marble (a bumboozer is, I believe, the proper term), don’t bother to slice them in half before roasting.
- 1 pound sunchokes, scrubbed well
- 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Coarse sea salt
1. Preheat the oven to 400°F (204°C).
2. Scrub the sunchokes well under cool running water with a brush or a cloth. Scrub them really, really, really well. Pat each sunchoke dry and slice it in half lengthwise. Place them in a metal roasting pan (not nonstick) that’s large enough to accommodate the sunchokes in a single layer. Toss with the olive oil and spread in a single layer, cut side down.
3. Roast the sunchokes until the cut sides are golden and crisp, the skins are slightly puffed, and the insides are tender throughout, 25 to 40 minutes, depending on the size.
4. Let the sunchokes cool on the pan slightly, then use a metal spatula to swoop them off the pan. (Sunchokes tend to caramelize quite easily, making the cut sides rather tricky to pry from the pan but oh so lovely to eat. Letting the sunchokes rest a few moments before using a swift motion to release them tends to leave as little sunchoke as possible on the pan.) Place the sunchokes on plates. Sprinkle with salt to taste. Serve hot or at room temperature.
Photo © 2007 kthread. All rights reserved.