Dig It?

13 Oct

We went a little wild at a plant nursery in Berkley after a rather fortuitous Living Social deal a while back. As a consequence,  we’re now herb farmers running out of balcony space. With not much experience growing food on a balcony, I felt it a little daring to take on a sunchoke; an ingredient I’ve actually never cooked with, let alone grown. A sunchoke is a ginger root-resembling tuber, also known as a Jerusalem artichoke.

Supposedly, they are very easy to grow and frequently take up residence outside farmhouses and by the sides of roads all by themselves and somehow do quite well.  They produce pretty yellow flowers. Some would even consider their ease of existence (and subsequent pervasiveness) on par with that of a weed. Our sunchoke looked so robust when we bought it, it was practically busting out of the plastic pot it came in. We relocated it to a spacious clay pot in lots of sun and thought, “How can we possibly kill it?” My mom has said that she has a knack for killing plants despite the best of intentions and I now wonder if it’s a familial trait given that after just a few weeks of love our sunchoke looked like this:

Sunchoke death knell

I figured it was time we dug it all up and cooked it. Having no idea what to expect, when I first yanked out the giant mass of tangled root and rhizome it reminded me of something out of Beetlejuice (my boyfriend said Pan’s Labyrinth).

Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice, Beetlejuice

Was this a healthy sunchoke? I have no clue! I removed as much debris as I could by hand and ended up with this:

Getting hungry? Me neither...

It would be impossible to skin these little buggers and have anything left to eat, so I spent a good amount of time with a giant potato  scrubber over the sink. You can roast these guys but I had found a recipe for a big winter stew that didn’t seem too overly ambitious so I decided to give it a try instead. I threw in butternut squash, saffron, potatoes, peppers… I had high hopes.

But the stew came out bland and mushy and I got no discernible flavor from the sunchoke whatsoever (good thing I saved several to try roasted). It was so lacking in seasoning that I forlornly threw cheese crackers on top of my helping as damage control and my boyfriend added lemon juice and a ton on hot sauce. And we now have several days worth of leftovers. It was more than a bit deflating considering the dirt now permanently lodged under my finger nails and the gallons of water wasted on scrubbing the suckers clean. So, now allow me to impress you with my learned sunchoke trivia (given that the recipe isn’t worth mentioning).

-Sunchokes, or Jerusalem artichokes are neither from Jerusalem nor are they artichokes. In fact, they are related to sunflowers, hence the more appropriate title, sunchoke.

-Sunchokes are (purportedly) quite easy to grow and will thrive under most conditions. Yea…sure…

-A few animals love the plant, and if the plant is allowed to flower,birds enjoy the seeds. Pigs will forage for and eat the tubers.

-Sunchokes are sometimes used raw in salads and have a jicama-like (or water chestnut-like) texture.

There you have it. The moral of my story? When trying a new ingredient, go small.

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