I usually wax on and on about food over here; luscious fruits, chewy cookies, and crispy roast vegetables. But today, I wanted to talk about a dear friend of mine, Renata.

Some relationships build slowly over time, requiring years to build trust and companionship. But sometimes, you just know right away when you’ve met someone really special. Renata is one of those people; she’s a petite woman with long, jet black hair and an unmistakable voice that speaks at least five languages in loud staccato, with frequent laughter. She’s a supplemental aunt/mother/friend to countless people, and I’m blessed to count myself among them.

I met Renata a few years ago, when we started using her test kitchen for a bread development project at work. She would stop in to check on the kitchen and taste my samples (usually after my boss had gone home for the day) trouble shooting and providing tips that might help me refine the formula over dozens and dozens of failed iterations. She would listen to my frustrated rambling, offer a little pep talk and a much needed hug.

The woman usually runs around about a hundred miles an hour. She’s helped open almost a dozen restaurants and masterminded catered events for thousands, plus underground dinners, charity events, and governor’s dinners. Oh, and organic and natural product development projects in addition to running a commercial kitchen. She regularly hosts exchange students, mothers two huge Doberman pups and tends to a lush garden chock full of apple trees, zucchini, squash, chives, potatoes, kale, oregano, mint, rosemary, a huge bay laurel and much more.

She dug up these beautifully knobby little sunchokes (also called Jerusalem artichokes) from her yard the last time I was at her house a few weeks ago. They are mild, sweet and creamy, with an artichoke-like flavor without the prickly choke.  I didn’t even try to peel them, just scrubbed them clean and chopped them up, then steamed until tender and mashed them with sweet butter, garlic, bright Satsuma zest and juice for an easy and impressively tasty side dish. You could also try them in this creamy soup I made a few years back.   

A well-traveled, well-seasoned chef, Renata can throw down in the kitchen. She has a meat tooth, eschewing sweets in favor of tender braised oxtails, prosciutto and duck fat. Move over gougères, her addictively cheesy, warm Pão de Queijo, just might be the best snack you’ve ever had in your life (and she probably has a couple bags ready to go in the freezer at any given moment).

But last year Renata had to slow down.  A bout of food poisoning in May 2012 was the catalyst for kidney failure, a debilitating condition that progresses over time. Without healthy kidneys, waste and excess fluid from the body cannot be removed, building up as toxins in the body. Initially this can be controlled through a very strict diet, limiting protein, salt, phosphorous and potassium (which excludes dairy, animal protein, dark green vegetables, nuts, seeds and most whole grains i.e. most healthy foods!)

Eventually though, the fatal progression to end-stage kidney failure is only delayed through dialysis (filtering of the blood by a machine over ~four hours, several times a week) or kidney transplant. There are currently over 120,000 adults in the US waiting for an organ transplant; of those, 98,000 need a kidney. The average wait time for a kidney is three to five years during which a third of patients will die waiting.

Renata has controlled her disease through diet alone in the last year, an astonishing feat. However, her kidney function is continuing to decline and she will start dialysis in a month. She has had over twenty gracious people volunteer to undergo the battery of tests for kidney donation, but none have been an eligible match.

Unfortunately, Renata isn’t the only person I know that’s been affected by kidney disease; my uncle passed away just this summer after several years on dialysis and the kidney transplant wait list. This is my plea to the internets; please consider learning more about donating a kidney. Like Renata’s Facebook page here, check out thisand this.

Smashed Sunchokes with Satsuma & Garlic

Look for sunchokes at farmer’s markets (or your neighbor’s front lawn. Just kidding!) from October to April. If you can’t find any, substitute your favorite root vegetable; celeriac would be lovely.

Sunchokes, aka Jerusalem artichokes are a rich source of iron, vitamin B1 and inulin, a type of fiber not digested in the large intestine, which can cause gastric discomfort if consumed raw or in excess. A serving of cooked sunchokes shouldn’t give you any grief though.

Serves 6


2 pounds sunchokes (or other root vegetables)

2 tablespoons butter, room temperature

1 teaspoon Satsuma zest (or other citrus)

2 teaspoons Satsuma juice (or other citrus)

1 small clove garlic, minced to a paste

½ teaspoon kosher salt

½ teaspoon black pepper, freshly ground

Wash. Put the sunchokes in a large sink and scrub thoroughly with a brush to remove any dirt. Fill a bowl with water and add the sunchokes, rubbing them all over to remove any dirt. Repeat this process until the water in the bowl is clear (up to three times). *If you bought your sunchokes at a Farmer’s Market, they might already be relatively clean. As you can see, mine were freshly dug from the garden and needed lots of TLC.

Butter. In a small bowl, smash together the butter, zest, juice, garlic, salt and pepper. Set aside while you cook the sunchokes.

Steam. Bring a medium saucepan with water to a simmer. Meanwhile, cut the sunchokes into ½-inch pieces, skin and all and put them in the steamer basket. Place over the simmering water and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until tender. Remove from the heat.

Smash. Pour the water out of the pan and put the sunchokes back in, along with the butter. Smash the sunchokes with a potato masher.