It is difficult to say whether Hilda Cowan's favorite pastime is gardening or cooking. She combines both interests in her blog Along the Grapevine, where she shares recipes from her garden using local ingredients – and by local she means feet, not miles.
Now that the snow has almost disappeared in Eastern Ontario, the top few inches of the ground have thawed, and there are visible signs of spring, I look forward to a new season of cooking with wild and cultivated plants.
While not much is happening yet in terms of foraged produce, and even less in the vegetable garden, I did manage to uncover a good haul of one of my favorite vegetables – Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes.
I say favorite because I love the unmistakable artichoke flavor. They are in fact not artichokes at all, rather a member of the sunflower family, but if you like artichokes you will certainly be tempted by these odd little tubers. They are delicious grated fresh in salads, roasted, boiled, dried, deep fried or fermented. Once you have a few growing in your garden you are almost guaranteed a never-ending supply. Normally harvested in the fall, right now just as the ground is thawing is the best time to dig them up when they are at their sweetest.
If you do not have access to any from the garden, look for them at a farmers market, and if not in plain sight ask one of the vendors.
Many farmers have them volunteer in their fields but choose not to use or sell them, and they might be willing to spot you a few.
On the downside, sunchokes do not store well either fresh or cooked. Fresh ones keep for about three weeks in a paper bag in the fridge, cooked ones not more than a couple of days.
They can also cause gas, especially when consumed in large amounts. The method I am writing about solves both these problems. It also provides a useful and economical staple to be enjoyed year 'round.
I prefer freshly dug ones, as then there is no need to peel them. Just give them a good scrub to remove any dirt and fibers, and cut off any soft bits.
Next, shred or slice them thinly and put them in a dehydrator for about 4 to 5 hours at 135ºF until they are thoroughly dry and crisp. They can also be dried in an oven at a higher temperature, up to 175ºF, but you will need to check and make sure they are not browning too much. If so, turn the oven off and back on once it has cooled down.
Once dried, grind them in a food processor for a coarse meal. If a finer grind is required, regrind them in a coffee or spice grinder. This flour will keep well and can be used in savory baking or for flavoring and thickening soups, stews and sauces.