When I was a kid I loved to try new foods; strange vegetables and fruits, even foreign meat and seafood, there was nothing I wouldn’t try. Once I convinced a family friend to buy me and my brother each a marinated baby octopus from the University Seafood and Poultry Co. on the Ave. Once we got home and unwrapped them, we proceeded to thoroughly inspect them, after which we each put our octopus on a saltine cracker (why, I have no idea) and started gnawing. I don’t remember it tasting too good, just salty and chewy, but who cared?! We were eating baby octopus!
To this day, I still get a feeling of nervous excitement when I try a new food. Just this past weekend at the University District Farmer’s Market, I spied some dirty, knobbly little things at a vegetable stand and went over to investigate. Were they small potatoes? Fat hands of ginger? Dwarfed taro root? Actually, the man at the stand informed me, they were Jerusalem artichokes. There isn’t much difference between the red and the white ones, he told me, but that the white ones were a little sweeter.
Aaaahhh so that’s what the little buggers looked like. I had seen recipes calling for them but had never found them in the grocery store. Also known as sunchokes, they are actually sunflower tubers and are rich in potassium, iron, fiber, niacin, phosphorus, and copper. From what I’ve read, some people are especially sensitive to their abundant inulin (a probiotic and a good source of soluble fiber), and are prone to gas and bloating. Regardless of inulin’s possible side effects, I was eager to try them, as they supposedly taste of artichokes and have the texture of a potato (two of my favorite vegetables!) so I quickly bought a three pound bag of them.
I had a head of cauliflower rolling around in my crisper, so I decided to cut it up and roast it along with my newly discovered artichokes. I added the classic Spanish duo of raisins and pine nuts to the vegetables towards the end, hoping to heighten the sweet and nutty flavors shared by both the cauliflower and Jerusalem artichokes. And indeed, they tasted fabulous just roasted, but instead of a chunky side dish I wanted a silken soup. So, reserving some of the raisins and nuts for garnish, I pureed the whole lot and then thinned it with a touch of cream and water, resulting in a rich-tasting soup that highlighted the vegetables’ subtle flavors instead of obscuring them, as I find most cream soups tend to do.
Sometimes trying new foods can be disappointing or strange (like chewy baby octopus), but I find that more often than not it is quite rewarding. I’ve decided the elusive Jerusalem artichoke is a definite keeper; with a strikingly similar flavor to that of regular artichokes, sans all the tedious trimming, what more could you ask for? Look for them at your nearest farmer’s market ASAP, as the season (November through March) is just about coming to a close.
Jerusalem Artichoke and Cauliflower Soup
The roasted Jerusalem artichokes, cauliflower, raisins, and pine nuts can be served as is for a side dish. Consider peeling the artichokes if you decide to serve them this way, as their skins can be rather tough. The soup can be made vegan by leaving the milk/cream out and using almond milk or water instead.
1 head cauliflower
3 lbs Jerusalem artichokes
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons ground black pepper
3 tablespoons raisins
3 tablespoons pine nuts
¼ cup milk (or cream if you like)
Roast the vegetables: Preheat the oven to 400°. Cut the cauliflower into florets and put in a large bowl. Cut the unpeeled artichokes into ½ inch chunks and put in the bowl with the cauliflower. Toss the vegetables with the olive oil, salt and black pepper, then pour onto an ungreased baking sheet. Roast for 40 minutes, tossing and redistributing the vegetables after 20 minutes. After 40 minutes, sprinkle the raisins and pine nuts over the vegetables, and roast an additional 5 minutes, until the pine nuts are toasted and the raisins have plumped up. Once cooked, the vegetables should be tender and golden brown. Let them cool on the pan.
Puree the vegetables: Once cool, transfer the vegetables to a food processor or blender, reserving some of the raisins and pine nuts for garnish. Add the milk (or cream if using) and puree for 1-2 minutes, until the vegetables are very finely pureed. Pass the puree through a fine sieve, discarding the solids (which are mostly the Jerusalem artichoke skins). Thin the mixture with water to the desired constancy, then taste for seasoning. At this point, the soup can be refrigerated for up to 5 days or frozen for up to two months.
To serve: Reheat the soup in a saucepot or in the microwave then ladle into bowls. Sprinkle the reserved raisins and pine nuts over the soup and finish with some freshly ground black pepper.