The freshly dug sunchokes (also called Jerusalem artichokes) look so tender and crisp in Northwest Farmers Markets right now, I couldn’t resist buying several pounds last week–even though I wasn’t sure what I would do with them. My cookbook, Pacific Northwest Palate, Four Seasons of Great Cooking, features a sunchoke pancake, but other than that, I really haven’t given this vegetable its fair due over the years.
Sunchokes are so named because they are the tubers of a species of perennial sunflower native to temperate North America, and because they have a flavor reminiscent of an artichoke. They are crisp when raw and mildly nutty. When roasted, sautéed, or braised, the almost sweet nuttiness intensifies and the texture is akin to similarly prepared potatoes. They can be blended to an almost smooth puree, again like a potato.
Unlike a potato, however, the super knobby tubers are much too difficult to peel, so however you plan to cook them, the peel will have to be considered. It’s very tender though, so the key issue for me is the potentially unappetizing color: tan interior with brown skin. Also, the flavor, though mild, is too distinctive to play second fiddle to the other ingredients used in the dish. You don’t want to mask the flavor of the sunchoke and yet it does require a counterpoint, or two, or three.
There are at least two key ways to play up a key ingredient: accentuate and deviate. To accentuate means to go with the direction of the key ingredient. If it’s creamy, add creaminess; if it’s nutty, add nuttiness; if it’s sweet, add sweetness; if it’s smoky, add smokiness. This works to a point.
But almost always, you will also need to deviate. To deviate means to go against the direction of the key ingredient. If it’s creamy, add texture; if it’s nutty, add a clear, bright note; if it’s sweet, add something acidic; if it’s smoky, add a bright or sharp flavor. Flavor balancing and layering is more art than science, although science has a lot to say on the matter and makes for some fascinating reading.
In developing this soup, I went both with and against the flavor profile of the sunchokes. On the “with” side of the equation, toasted hazelnuts emphasize the nutty flavor of the sunchokes while adding a subtle, extra dimension to the overall nuttiness of the soup. Roasting emphasizes the nuttiness as well and is extended to the garlic and onions. The creamy aspect is emphasized by pureeing the sunchokes and adding cream.
Sunchokes on their own become quickly tiresome, as they are rich, almost sweet, and one dimensional. That one dimension, however, is stunning when paired with certain contrasting flavor partners. On the “against” side of the equation, acidity is a must.
In this soup, lemon fills this supporting role nicely without adding too obtrusive a note of its own. Saltiness is also a must. Salt alone is fine, but here we use frizzled prosciutto, which gives the soup a localized burst of salt, meatiness, light smoky flavor, and a textural element. Herbaceousness, while not an absolute requirement, keeps the palate at full attention through every bite. And finally, a tangy, creamy, cold, goat cheese crèma accentuates AND counterbalances the richness of the sunchoke puree.
Roasted Garlic & Sunchoke Soup with Rosemary Hazelnut Pesto & Goat Cheese Crèma
This soup deserves diners who will appreciate the complex layering and sophisticated flavor pairing going on here. This is a gorgeous soup, satisfying on every level.
Ingredient Note There is no need to peel the knobby sunchokes, and indeed, it is extremely laborious to attempt to do so. The skins are tender and will puree with hardly a trace.
2 pounds sunchokes, scrubbed and cut into ½-inch thick slices
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, cored, and quartered.
2 heads garlic, top ½ inch cut off to expose the garlic cloves
2 tablespoons cold pressed, extra virgin olive oil
4-5 cups chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
fine sea salt, to taste
freshly ground black pepper
Rosemary Hazelnut Pesto
Goat Cheese Crèma (recipe below)
Frizzled Prosciutto (recipe below)
1/4 cup hazelnuts, lightly toasted, skinned, and coarsely chopped
finely grated zest of 1 lemon
- Prepare Rosemary Hazelnut Pesto, Goat Cheese Crèma, Frizzled Prosciutto, and toasted, chopped hazelnuts. Reserve.
- On an edged baking sheet, arrange the sunchokes, onion wedges, and whole garlic. Drizzle with olive oil, and roast at 375° for 35-45 minutes, until fully tender.
- Remove the baking sheet from the oven and when the garlic heads are cool enough to handle, squeeze the garlic from the papery shell and add to a blender, along with the sunchokes, onions, and 2 cups of chicken stock. Liquefy, adding additional stock if necessary to obtain as smooth a mixture as possible.
- In a 3½-quart saucepan, add the pureed vegetables and bring just to a simmer.
- Add the cream and lemon juice and stir to combine. Add enough of the remaining chicken stock to acheive a creamy but not too thick consistency.
- Season to taste with salt and pepper, and additional lemon juice if necessary, until a flavor balance is achieved.
- To serve, ladle 1½ cups of soup into each bowl, drizzle thin Rosemary Hazelnut Pesto and Goat Cheese Crèma over the top, and then top with a small mound of Frizzled Prosciutto, a scattering of chopped hazelnuts, and a sprinkling of freshly grated lemon zest.
Makes about 8 cups.
Goat Cheese Crèma
I have to be careful when I have this crèma on hand, as I seem to make up any excuse to dip into it. It’s excellent drizzled over hot or cold soups, enchiladas, scrambled eggs, and even spaetzle (my new favorite pasta). The goat cheese tang is mild here, with the sour cream adding the rest of the tang.
2 ounces mild, fresh goat cheese (chevre)
2 cloves peeled garlic, pressed or minced
1 cup heavy cream
½ cup sour cream
½ teaspoon salt
- In the bowl of a processor fitted with the steel blade, process the goat cheese and garlic to a coarse paste. Add the cream a little at a time, scraping the sides of the bowl a few times, until the mixture is creamy and smooth.
- Continue processing until the cream just begins to thicken. Add the sour cream and process just to incorporate. Add salt to taste.
- Transfer to a container (preferably a squeeze bottle with a tip), cover, and refrigerate until needed.
This is my new favorite “bacon” garnish. It’s much quicker to prepare than bacon, more delicate in texture, and more intensely flavored.
6 slices lightly smoked, thinly sliced prosciutto
1-2 tablespoons light olive oil
- Slice the prosciutto crosswise into scant ¼-inch wide strips.
- Add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a nonstick skillet and set over medium-high heat.
- Add the prosciutto and sauté until crisp, stirring occasionally. Add the additional olive oil if you need it.
- Remove to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
Makes about ½ cup.