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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.


No Knead for That

20 Sep

If only I had this amount of counter space! Adorable photo by Dplanet, via Flickr.

So, I recently revisited my previous New Year’s resolutions after a traumatic incident involving a bathroom scale. I had pledged, among other things, to bake more of my own bread and decided that, in order to do that, I needed a bread machine. Really, I gave the issue a lot of thought:

Bake more of my own bread I’ve struggled with this one before. I rarely buy a loaf of bread from a supermarket. There are two big reasons why not. One, I’m just not a big sandwich eater. Two, have you read the ingredients in a loaf of processed bread? It’s actually a difficult task (the reading, not the baking). The ingredients may be edible, but they can hardly be considered food. So, I’ve tried buying a loaf of locally made bread from Whole Foods. Guess what? For twice as much money, not only did I find similar ingredients, but the bread was only produced in a local factory-not by a local baker. Don’t waste your money. The next step was buying bread at the farmers’ market. If you can find a bread vendor at the farmers market, I highly recommend this option. But honestly, a bread booth at the market can be a toughie to find unless your market covers a lot of prepared foods and not just produce. Now, I’ve also tried making my own yeast bread. While it’s satisfying to do and pretty yummy all said and done, baking homemade yeast bread takes a lot of time, kitchen space and money. None of which I have. I rarely say this about home cooking, but in this instance, it just isn’t worth it. So, this year, I am vowing to go the bread machine route. I’ll keep you posted.”

But here I am, in a new apartment with a slightly bigger kitchen and a boyfriend who loves sandwiches every day for lunch. Between us we own every kitchen gadget imaginable except a bread machine. Yes, seriously. I mean, we own a rotisserie, we own a tostone press and we  just added a soft-serve ice cream machine because it was recently on final clearance in the very back of Sur la Tab. Plus, I hear my mother’s voice in my head saying, “Jessica, don’t buy a bread machine, there’s absolutely no need for it. The bread comes out like a brick and you have so many better  options. Waste of money.”

OK, so she was right about the options–when I lived in L.A. But now that I’m camped out in the outer suburbs of the Bay Area, I can’t find a bakery for the life of me. Unfortunately, this is just the case in many suburban areas as I know all too well from my childhood. And Mom was also right about the brick part, at least judging by the end results of our childhood bread machine from Costco. It was about as successful as the pasta maker my dad bought off an infomercial in the nineties, and it got about the same amount of use before being promptly sold in the next neighborhood yard sale.

How I miss my weekly trips to Sweet Lady Jane! And even though I was happy to hear about the opening of The Pastry Cupboard, it’s still about an hour away from me.

But lo and behold, I found a no knead bread dough recipe with very few ingredients and fresh herbs. What I’m saying is, this recipe doesn’t require a ton of ingredients, effort or even counter space! And guess what? It’s really good.

We practically grow an herb farm on our balcony and we always keep a stash of yeast in the fridge for pizza dough so I didn’t even need to make a trip to the grocery store for anything. The only caveat here is that you’ll need to plan ahead; the dough rises for 24 hours. (And it will smell funky after 24 hours. Don’t worry, it won’t end up tasting funky.) The only kitchen hardware you’ll need is a Dutch oven. No fancy-schmancy Le Creuset needed either, I actually used an old oven-safe porcelain casserole with a lid because actually in addition to not owning a bread machine, we don’t own a Dutch oven. (But if you need tostones pressed, you know who to ask.) You don’t even need bread flour for this recipe.

This recipe came from and it’s the first thing I’ve cooked from the site.


  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 2/3 cups warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh sage (optional)

I used all of the herbs and really wouldn’t recommend leaving them out. However, next time I make this I think I may just stick to rosemary.

Fresh herbs; use 'em if you got 'em.

From Allrecipes:

  1. Combine the flour, yeast, and salt in a large bowl and mix to combine. Add the water and herbs, if using, and mix well. The dough will be very sticky and shaggy-looking. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside at room temperature for 18 to 24 hours.
  2. Generously flour a work surface. The dough will have risen and will be covered in bubbles. Transfer the dough to the work surface and dust it with flour. Fold the dough in half, and then form the dough into a ball by stretching and tucking the edges of the dough underneath the ball.
  3. Liberally flour a kitchen towel (do not use terrycloth-seriously, you’ll never be able to get the dough out). Place the dough ball on the floured towel. Cover with another floured towel. Let the dough rise for about two hours. (With floured thumb and forefinger, give the dough a little poke, your indentations should stay if the dough is done rising.)
  4. Preheat an oven to 450 degrees F (230 degrees C). Place a lidded Dutch oven or deep heavy duty casserole dish (with lid) into the oven to preheat.
  5. Carefully remove the hot baking dish from the oven. Remove the lid and gently turn the dough ball into the ungreased baking dish, seam-side up; shake the dish so the dough is more evenly distributed.
  6. Cover and bake for 30 minutes. Remove the lid and bake until the crust is golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the loaf from the baking dish and let it cool on a rack before slicing.

Ready the butter, friends!

Also, a side note for my gluten-free friends who love baked goods and baking them, check this out!