I dislike the name “Jerusalem artichoke”.
I don’t dislike the so-named vegetable at all, but the name irks me. No, not enough to say that I hate it with a passion, but it does bother me in several discrete ways – from the botanical (the plant is in no way related to artichokes – or no more so than it is related to all other asters, which is to say, they both belong to the largest family of flowering plants), to the geographical (it is a North American plant, and comes from nowhere near actual Jerusalem), and then also semantically, because the words, in my view, should at least relate to the same part of the plant being eaten, if not a related plant – but no. The real artichoke, in terms of what part of plant it is, is a flower. This one, is a tuber.
It’s almost like someone tried to see how they could name this plant several different things it’s not, and I guess I ought to be thankful they haven’t tacked on something like “mushroom” to it, just for the heck of it. I guess I’ll stick with the French name for it (topinambour), because it sounds better than the alternative English one (sunchoke), and so be it.
You’d wonder why I am writing about this vegetable if it irritates me so much, except I’ve already said it. The name irritates me. The vegetable itself, however, is one of my favorite root vegetables to eat, and while there are several different ways to prepare it, the topinambour soup, to me, overshadows them all.
So, for those who have never met a topinambour – or have, but never realised what it was – what is it like? Well, it looks a bit like a ginger root, and comes in cream, purplish and ivory colors. It has a raw texture similar to a water chestnut or a raw potato, and a scent and flavor reminiscent of artichokes. It cooks to a beautiful light-cream color, especially if you bother peeling it. I don’t – I just scrub it really well with the rough side of my dish sponge, and cut off the end bits if needed. Pureeing this results in a lightly textured soup with a slightly flecked appearance that looks a bit rustic and which I don’t mind at all. It has an amazing, almost herbal aroma and in my view, goes amazingly well with most autumn flavors you could think of.
My favorite combination is a very simple one, as I make it with sauteed onions and a bit of garlic, cream and a single potato (latter added based on some very good advice found on Chocolate and Zucchini), with a good dash of white wine or sherry at the end of cooking. I garnish it with a generous grinding of a hard cheese (Gran Moravia is the flavor of the month, i.e. what’s living in the back of the fridge until it’s eaten), some bacon bits if I have any bacon on hand, and a bit of chopped parsley. In the fall, when the topinambours come into season, and the weather cools, I eat this stuff in quantity, I eat it happily and with gusto.
Which brings me to another matter which should be mentioned when discussing topinambours. The tubers store most of their carbohydrate content in a largely-indigestible (to humans) polysaccharide named inulin. Which means, they are incredibly good for diabetics and people on LCHF-type diets, since the carbohydrate is of the unavailable sort. The flipside of this fact, however, is that consuming large amounts of inulin causes some (not all) people some gastric disturbance of the windy sort – due to the action of gastric flora breaking down the inulin which we, ourselves, can’t.
In my experience, it is not a very large disturbance, but there are certain steps I take to minimize it when cooking topinambours that you can take, too.
- First, when you buy the tubers, make sure they are firm, not squishy. Squishy tubers mean they are old, and you want them as fresh as possible. Why? Isn’t wanting your produce to be fresh good enough reason for you? Well, apparently, according to several sources, aforementioned gastric disturbance is worse if they aren’t fresh, so there’s your other good reason.
- Second, you want to soak the tubers in some cold water while you cut them up. This achieves two things – prevents them from oxidation and thus going dark while you chop, and helps dissolve and remove some of the inulin which is the cause of said disturbance.
- Third, after you are done chopping, drain the tubers and rinse them well under running water, then, like I do with beans, cook them in 2-3 changes of water: put them into cold water, bring to a boil, boil under 5 minutes and drain, then replace water. You will notice that original soaking water would have colored pale yellow-green which disappears in successive water changes. I usually drain the two first boils, then salt the third one and allow it to cook until the sliced topinambours can be pierced with a fork without too much effort.
- Fourth, I add a single potato to the soup, on the above-mentioned advice from Chocolate and Zucchini. I don’t know if it’s the enzyme action which helps, or just the dilution of the topinambours with simple starch, but either way, it does help some, and it tastes really really good.
So, what do you need? (Makes approximately 1.5-2L of soup, depending on how thick you like yours)
- A blender or food processor to puree the soup (unlike the winter squash soup, this one cannot be mashed with a fork very well at all).
- 500g topinambours (Locally, at ICA, they often come pre-packed in half-kilo bags, which is convenient, but check that they are fresh inside the bag by feel)
- 1 medium potato
- 1 small white onion or 2-3 shallots
- 4-5 garlic cloves
- ~500ml chicken stock, but if you don’t have any, a tablespoon of chicken fond and some boiled water do fine too, as topinambour flavor is very strong, and capable of smoothing over our cooking indiscretions – all the more reason to love them!
- 2-3dl heavy cream
- ~125g (1 pack) of bacon rashers (sliced) or lardons (optional, if not using, you’ll need a bit of butter or vegetable oil to fry the onions)
- A handful of parsley, chopped (optional – I use flat-leaf and if I buy/chop too much, I freeze leftovers in plastic bags for later use)
- As much hard cheese as you like in your soup, shredded finely. I like loads.
- Sea salt and black pepper to taste
What to do:
- Wash, scrub, slice and soak while slicing the potato and topinambours. When done, rinse and replace in the pot, adding fresh cold water. Bring to a boil, drain, rinse, and repeat.
- After draining the second set of boiling water, add fresh cold water and 2 teaspoons of salt, and bring the pot to a boil. Lower heat so it doesn’t boil out, but leave it boiling pretty hard for 10-15 minutes, until the topinambours can be pierced with a fork.
- In the meantime (while the water boils 3x times, and the vegetables cook), heat a non-stick frying pan to medium-high heat and fry the bacon until crispy. Remove bacon onto a plate and keep warm.
- Lower heat in frying pan slightly and add onions or shallots. Saute them gently until they are translucent and begin to color, then push aside and add the slightly smashed but not chopped garlic cloves. Fry those until they turn slightly golden, then move the onions, garlic and any fat remaining in the pan into the goblet of a blender or food processor.
- Once topinambours are cooked, drain them and add 1/2 to the blender alongside the onions and garlic. Pour in enough chicken stock or boiled water to just about cover them, and puree until it’s pureed enough for your taste (the cycle and speeds will depend on your appliance – I use a regular smoothie blender, so I do two cycles of speed 1-2-3 then 1-2-3 again for about a minute at each speed. No, my blender isn’t very fancy, I am sure some of them would do a much faster job). Pour the puree back into soup pot (you may have to rinse it if it has residue on the sides), and repeat with second batch.
- If you used water and not chicken stock, add your 1 tablespoon of chicken fond or stock concentrate, and the cream (adjust its amount to your taste, but I like quite a bit). Mix the cream in, then add enough water or stock to bring soup to your desired consistency.
- Turn the heat to medium, cover the pot and heat the soup through to a lightest hint of a simmer (do not allow to come to hard boil). Taste and add salt if needed (this depends on how salty your chicken stock/concentrate was).
- Once soup is heated, ladle it into bowls, and garnish them with the chopped parsley, bacon, cheese, black pepper or any or all or none of the above.
It tastes like September.