Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Extremely local foods

Since the age of 10, I had been looking for the elusive Jerusalem Artichoke.  I remember seeing the photos of this great plant and wild edible in the Audubon's A Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants; the thought of finding it was like some mysterious deep-sea treasure hunt coming to a successful, triumphant end!  Last year, as summer transitioned to crisp, chilly autumn, the prize was finally captured.  The great find happened on a portion of the Hank Aaron State Trail, which runs from the 6th Street Bridge at the start of the Menomonee Valley all the way west to 124th Street and beyond.

While strolling along its newly paved, smooth asphalt surface, I looked to my right, then to my left, scanning for edibles I recognized.  Immediately to my right was a stand of yellow flowers, not unlike small sunflowers.  At first I thought they were black-eyed susans, but the center of flower was a distinct pale yellow.  I had not seen these before, except in photos.  I took out my field guide and compared the flowers under my excited eyes to the photo in the book.  I then read the description of the plant: hairy stems and leaves, check; yellow flowers with yellow centers, check.  Leaves at the top of the stems opposite, while the lower leaves were not, check.  The only element left to verify was the tubers, which would lead to a definite identification of the fabled plant.


I grabbed my garden spade from my shoulder bag and knelt down on the cold, dry dirt around the still extant flowers (many had fallen away, but there were still some left).  I took a breath and shoved the tip of the spade into the hard ground.  Shoveling away dirt from the base of the plants, I sighed with disappointment as I encountered more and more roots without tubers.  Then, something magical happened.  I know it may seem trivial to many, but to me, who had been waiting more that 25 years to find this, it was like finding King Tut's tomb!  I came upon a pinkish tuber, about the size of a fingerling potato.  I broke it open, exposing the fresh, white, apple / potato-like flesh.  It was still full of dirt, but I could not resist nibbling a bit.  It tasted nutty (not in the Andrew Zimmern way) and earthy, with a crunchy texture, a bit harder than a potato.  I dug around this and found more tubers.  This was amazing!  I must admit, though, that the people running and biking by me must have thought I was pretty strange.

I knew that the tubers were not completely ready to harvest, however, because the ground was still too warm and the flowers and plants were still alive.    So, I returned in November and found an abundance of purple tubers.  The smaller, brownish ones are immature or a different species (not sure which).

I am always careful to make sure that there are enough so as not to decimate the population.  The great thing about these is that they are very often already disconnected from the plant.  They store very well in the cold ground until they can be harvested.  Here are two very simple ways I have used them:

Roasted root vegetables:


  • 1/2 lb Jerusalem artichokes, peeled and cut in chunks
  • 1/2 lb beets, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1/2 Primrose roots (see upcoming post), peeled and cut into chunks
  • 1 head of garlic, cloves separated but husk left on
  • olive oil 
  • salt
  • pepper
  • sumac

1) Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Place rack in the middle of the oven.
2) Put all root veggies and garlic in a glass roasting pan and mix liberally with olive oil, salt, pepper and sumac.
3) Roast in oven until vegetables are soft and caramelized, about 1 hour, depending on oven.


Assorted greens
shaved fresh beets
shaved carrots
several Jerusalem artichokes, cut width-wise into very thin slices

Olive oil
Balsamic dressing
Dijon mustard

1) Assemble salad
2) For dressing: put 2 parts oil to one part balsamic vinegar into a non reactive bowl.
3)Add dijon to taste (I usually add about one tablespoon per cup and 1/2 of liquid)
4) Add honey, salt and pepper to taste
5) add some capers (as many as you'd like)
6) Whisk until all ingredients are combined and the dressing is smooth.
7) drizzle over salad and enjoy!

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