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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.

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Roots of Change

12 Sep

OK, guys. I’m gonna let you all in on a big embarrassing secret. 

In case you haven’t read the above tab, “The Idea Behind Chewgooder,” I was not always a foodie. In fact, I wasn’t even close. I ate low fat Pop Tarts-on a regular basis. I grew up on Shake and Bake and Rice-a-Roni. I have (please don’t tell my boyfriend) actually consumed low-carb beer. 

Nowadays, when my friends ask me why I haven’t eaten all day I answer that I haven’t found anything yet worth the caloric intake…ooooh wait, is that the Let’s Be Frank Truck? Move it girls, that’s lunch! 

My first kitchen...incidentally much bigger than my current one.

So, speaking of being frank, I’m usually pretty upfront about the fact that I didn’t grow up dining in fine French establishments or shopping at the farmers’ market, but in case you need some extra proof of this or proof that anyone can get in on the sustainable food movement, I offer the following story: 

I made my debut at environmental non-profit Heal the Bay as a volunteer. I had just moved to Los Angeles and I showed up for training after a long day of work, delighted to find a table of snacks. I’m sure there were carrot sticks that I likely avoided in favor of snack mix, I for-went the grapes in favor of….mmmm, something delicious and salty and… 

“What are these?” (It should be noted that what I almost said was “Who made these?”) 

The director of programs, who I had so wanted to impress, looked slightly confused and answered, 

“Um, they’re macadamia nuts.” (Did you catch that implied “duuh?”) 

Why would I bring attention to my…ahem… humble food roots? Because I tire of hearing the argument that we cannot feed ourselves without the use of our modern industrial food system. One that uses chemical fertilizers, pesticides and hormones and runs like a factory. One that is huge. One that can’t figure out where the salmonella came from. 

I’m heartened every day to read stories about innovative new small farms, people gardening and growing food in the urban environment, new farmers’ markets popping up, all utilizing more traditional methods of raising food. I’m even more heartened to see these stories published in such main stream publications as the New York Times Magazine, so that even people as clueless as I was can get a clue. While the Monsantos and DuPonts of the world will tell you that the only way to feed a hungry planet is with the use of their products, I’d like to share a passage that I recently read in “eaarth” by Bill McKibben that proves just the opposite point can be true: 

So are those gumdrops made with organic cane sugar or what?

“I’ve reclined under a palm tree in Bangladesh where a hundred species of fruit and vegetable grew in a single acre: the farm featured guava, lemon, pomegranate, coconut, betel nut, mango, jackfruit, apple, lychee, chestnut, date, fig, and bamboo trees, as well as squash, okra, eggplant, zucchini, blackberry, bay leaf, cardamom, cinnamon and sugarcane plants, not to mention dozens of herbs…A chicken coop produced not just eggs and meat, but waste that fed a fish pond, which in turn produced thousands of pounds of protien annually, and a healthy crop of water hyacinths that were harvested to feed a small herd of cows, whose dung in turn fired a biogas cooking system.”    

As McKibben stresses, not only can this kind of agriculture feed the world, it will need to if we plan on beginning to halt the deleterious effects of climate change that our industrial global food system contributes greatly to. 

Here’s to tradition. 

McKibben brings up another important point as well. Easy access to information due to the Internet is crucial to the transition as well: “All of a sudden it’s possible to have the cultural equivalent of  farmers’ markets — content, ideas, craziness emerging from any place and every place. YouTube is a bazaar. Huffington Post is a souk.” Hopefully Chewgooder is helping to inform your gastronomic decisions and broaden your horizons too.

Here’s to innovation.