I’ve been a little stuck in the kitchen lately. It’s a funny time of year here in southern Maine. The garden is almost planted and, at best, producing young pea shoots, chives and a few tiny salad greens. The garlic, planted last fall, is tall and majestic, promising a great yield. But at this point, it’s all a tease.
Memorial Day weekend felt more like Columbus Day. Sheets of cold rain, howling winds and a chill in the air forced us to stoke late May fires. But on Sunday morning the sun peeked out, so I got on my boots and flannel shirt and headed outside. While I was weeding around the peas, I noticed a patch of tall, healthy greens I couldn’t identify. Planted in the corner of the garden they looked a little like a cluster of early, self-seeded sunflowers.
Suddenly, a memory.
My friend Karen visited late last spring and brought me a bunch of Jerusalem artichoke plants. I must have told her to put them in the corner of the garden. (I put everything in the corner until I can figure out if I like a plant. If I do, then I find a more permanent home for it.) The small cluster she brought had quadrupled over the winter. More important, it had survived the winter.
Jerusalem artichokes add to spring’s garden bounty
I’ve never grown Jerusalem artichokes, but Karen had mentioned they’re like a weed, capable of multiplying like crazy. I recalled that Jerusalem artichokes are an early-spring crop. I decided to take a chance and dig a few up.
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I was so excited that I put the artichoke directly in my mouth, not even wiping off the heavy blanket of wet, granular soil that clung to it. I felt the crunch of the raw artichoke. A sweet juice emerged that tasted like a spring tonic. And there was most definitely an artichoke-like flavor, but this “artichoke” was all about the nutty, crunchy, water-chestnut-like texture of the tuber.
Jerusalem artichokes, also called sun chokes, are not from Jerusalem and are a distant cousin to regular artichokes. According to Zester Daily contributor Deborah Madison in her stunning new book “Vegetable Literacy“ (Ten Speed Press, 2013), “Artichokes are thistles; Jerusalem artichokes are the tuber of a sunflower.” That explained my mistaking the plant for a sunflower.
“Knobby and looking a bit like fresh ginger, Jerusalem artichokes taste nutty and sweet, earthy and clean — a very pleasant complex of qualities, indeed. They are not starchy like a potato, and the presence of inulin gives them a pleasant mouthfeel. They are a good source of calcium, iron, phosphorous, potassium, vitamin C …” Madison goes on to list their attributes, making one feel like a fool for not having eaten these things every day for maximum health.
Jerusalem artichokes don’t need much preparation. Give them a little squeeze and make sure they are firm and not soft or mushy. You can rinse them under cold water and remove the peel if you like, but when they’re young and just pulled from the garden the peel is perfectly digestible. (Madison does point out there are some who consider Jerusalem artichokes hard to digest, “hence giving them their unpleasant nickname, ‘fartichokes.’ “)
Jerusalem artichokes are delicious eaten raw, shaved or thinly sliced into salads, or as a garnish for soups and stews.
They can be sliced and sautéed in olive oil, added to pasta sauces, cooked and puréed and served as a dip or spread for crostini. Being tubers, they can also be cooked like potatoes — roasted or steamed and mashed with a knob of butter, or thinly sliced into a gratin.
I dug up dozens of Jerusalem artichokes, screaming to my husband like an importunate toddler. (“Come see! Come see what I’ve found!”) I noticed a few leeks that had wintered over in the garden and had several spring parsnips, so I decided to make a soup. I’ve had luscious, Italian-style soups made from artichokes and figured these chokes would make a perfectly acceptable substitute.
I sautéed the leeks slowly, not letting them brown, added the chopped artichokes and the parsnips, and finally some stock. While it simmered, I went back out to the garden and discovered a patch of wild sorrel in the yard, a tart and lemony green herb that is abundant in the fields around our old farmhouse. The sorrel puréed with olive oil, sea salt and freshly cracked pepper made a tart, green topping for the rich, sweet, puréed Jerusalem artichoke soup.
An unexpected discovery in my own garden led to a new recipe. An unexpected gift from a friend led to a new spring favorite, making this in-between season so much sweeter.
Spring Jerusalem Artichoke and Parsnip Soup With a Sorrel Swirl
Serves 4 to 6
If you peel the Jerusalem artichokes, you might want to place them in a bowl of cold water with half a lemon squeezed in so they don’t oxidize and begin to brown. This soup has no cream or dairy, but it tastes quite creamy. You can add a dollop of cream, crème fraîche, yogurt or sour cream, but you really don’t need it.
For the soup:
1½ tablespoons olive oil
3 leeks, ends trimmed, dark greens sections trimmed, and white bulb cut lengthwise and cleaned, and then cut into 1-inch pieces
9 ounces of Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), peeled or not, and cut into 1-inch pieces
9 ounces parsnips, peeled an cut into 1-inch pieces
1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 cups vegetable or chicken stock
About 1 cup crème fraîche, sour cream, heavy cream or plain yogurt, optional topping
For the Sorrel Swirl:
1 cup fresh sorrel
½ cup olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the soup:
1. In a large soup pot, add the oil over low heat. Add the leeks and sauté, stirring occasionally, for 10 minutes. Do not let the leeks brown.
2. Add the artichokes and parsnips and cook, stirring for 2 minutes.
3. Add the garlic, salt, and pepper and cook another 2 minutes.
4. Raise the heat to high, add the stock and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and let cook about 15 to 20 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender when tested with a small, sharp knife.
5. Let cool slightly and purée in a food processor, blender or using an immersion blender.
6. Taste for seasoning. The soup should be fairly thick; if it is too thin, simmer it over low heat uncovered to thicken slightly.
For the sorrel swirl:
1. Place the sorrel and oil in a food processor or blender and purée. It won’t be smooth. Season to taste. The sorrel swirl will keep in a jar refrigerated for several days.
2. Serve hot with a spoonful of the sorrel swirl and/or a dollop of crème fraîche, etc.
Top photo: Spring Jerusalem artichoke and parsnip soup with a sorrel swirl. Credit: Kathy Gunst