Cooking in Season: Sunchokes

I went to a Chef’s Collaborative event here in Seattle on Monday night. I really love the crowd at these member meet-and-greet gatherings. Can always count on seeing pals from the food and beverage world, including Charles and Rose Ann Finkel from Pike Brewing Company and Pub; Fernando and Marlene Divina from Tendrils at Cave B; Tom Buckley from Caffé Vita; Seth Caswell (president of the local chapter) from Stumbling Goat, among others. And local farmers are often the stars of the day. This week the theme was winter produce. Many farmers don’t stop growing things just because the temps drop and days get shorter. And chefs who try to devote themselves to truly local, seasonal products have a decent, if not summertime-bountiful, variety of ingredients to choose from. It just takes a little extra creativity to make the most of them.

The event was held at City Catering, chef Russell Burton dreamed up a menu featuring of-the-moment ingredients. Farmers attending that night from Full Circle Farm, Nash’s Organic and Willie Green’s Organic Farm provided arugula, beets, sunchokes, parsnips, cabbage, squash, fennel and probably one or two others things I’m forgetting. Menu items included a delicious beet and fennel terrine, roasted root vegetables, squash seed brittle, sunchoke purée, parsnip and rutabega chips, and beet cake (rather like carrot cake or zucchini bread, moist and tender).

When Andrew Stout from Full Circle addressed the group, he mentioned they’d brought the sunchokes for the chef to play around with, adding “everyone needs to come up with 5 new recipes for sunchokes!” The crowd laughed. I took it as a personal challenge. I can do this. This is what I do. But just not until this weekend’s farmers markets when can I stock up. More on those experiments later.

For now, I wanted to share you with a delicious sunchoke recipe for your reading (and hopefully eating) pleasure. It’s from my book Northwest Best Places Cookbook, Volume 2, a collection of recipes from restaurants, cafes, hotels, bakeries, etc. across Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. This sunchoke recipe came from chef David Hawksworth, then at West restaurant in Vancouver. He left that post last year, taking time now to prepared for his next big venture: Hawksworth at The Georgia. The Georgia hotel, which had its heyday in decades past, is closed for a complete renovation, due to reopen late 2009. In the meantime, he’s busy doing “research” which means eating well, cooking, traveling, taking notes, dreaming ideas….. West was always a favorite restaurant of mine in Vancouver, can’t wait to taste what David has in store for us next.

Back to sunchokes. They’re a tuber, also known as Jerusalem  artichokes. “Jerusalem” because the plant family is the same as that of the sunflower, or girasol/e in Spanish/Italian (which I guess you can imagine being corrupted to Jerusalem….). And “artichoke” because the nutty-earthy flavor is reminiscent of artichokes. Sunchokes seems to be becoming the more commonly used name lately. Flipping through my notes recently from November’s trip to France, I was reminded of this course from dinner at the 2-star Michelin La Madeleine restaurant in Sens (northern Burgundy), sunchoke cream soup–very simple–served with mini sun-dried tomato madeleines. Sublime. Oh, they’re called topinambour in France. Curious about that name? Me too. Just read something about it being a French corruption of the name of a tribe in Brasil (yes, Brasil).

Finally, here’s the promised recipe.

Sunchoke Soup with Skillet-Roasted Scallops

1 1/2 pounds sunchokes

6 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 small white onion, coarsely chopped

1 large leek, white part only, sliced

1 stalk celery, coarsely chopped

1 small carrot, coarsely chopped

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 sprig thyme

1 bay leaf

4 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade

1 cup milk

1/2 cup whipping cream

1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lemon juice, more to taste

salt and freshly ground black pepper

4 teaspoons olive oil

12 sea scallops

4 sprigs chervil or flat-leaf parsley

Use the edge of a spoon or a vegetable peeler to scrape away the thin skin from the sunchokes, dropping them into a bowl of water as you finish to help minimize discoloration. When all the sunchokes have been peeled, drain them well and coarsely chop them.

Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the sunchokes, onion, leek, celery, carrot, garlic, thyme and bay leaf. Cook, stirring often, until the vegetables begin to soften, 8 to 10 minutes (the vegetables shouldn’t brown; reduce the heat if needed). Add the chicken stock, milk and cream, bring the liquid just to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until the vegetables are very tender, 30 to 40 minutes.

Remove and discard the thyme sprig and bay leaf from the soup, then purée the soup in batches in a blender or food processor and return it to the pan. Season the soup to taste with lemon juice, salt and pepper and keep warm over low heat.

In a large skillet (preferably nonstick) heat the olive oil over medium-high heat until it just begins to smoke. Add the scallops and cook until nicely browned, 1 to 2 minutes on each side (the scallops will remain translucent in the center).

To serve, arrange the scallops in the bottom of individual shallow soup bowls and ladle the hot soup around them. Garnish each serving with a sprig of chervil in the center and serve right away.

Makes 4 to 6 servings

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