Jerusalem artichoke + African blue basil + black walnut cooking tips and fun facts
by Kara Elder
April 14, 2020
Hello, everyone! If you got a produce bag or box from Path Valley, you've got quite the spring-time load of treats to work with.
Path Valley Farms is a farming cooperative in south central Pennsylvania, made up of a core group of about 10 farmers, with several more growers/producers contributing eggs, vegetables, fruit, nuts, and more. Normally Path Valley supplies restaurants in the area — you can read more about their background in this 2017 Washington Post article — but once restaurants were closed due to COVID-19 (with the exception of takeout), their usual produce drop-offs went from about 40 deliveries to five.
"The Number 1 Sons set up basically saved our skin," says Katie Joynt, the co-op's produce coordinator. Thanks to the vegetable boxes, eggs, and more that you all order — plus some orders to a few other area restaurants and chefs — Path Valley is able to place its produce and pay their farmers. This is especially important since, like nearly any farm or orchard out there, basically everything has already been planted and planned out for the season. There are some families who make their living raising produce for Path Valley Farms, explains Katie, and while it shakes things up to not have their usual restaurant sales, it’s been a fairly gentle segue into an entirely different business. And, Katie says, everyone totally loves putting together these boxes and bags. :)
In the coming weeks, you can expect asparagus, ramps, and even (pending weather: there was snow on Friday morning!!) strawberries.
In your boxes from this weekend + next, you might've gotten Jerusalem artichokes (also called sunchokes), African blue basil, and black walnuts. Let's start with the last two:
As Pam Peirce writes in the San Francisco Chronicle: "African blue basil (Ocimum kilimandscharicum x basilicum 'Dark Opal') is an accidental hybrid between an East African basil and a garden variety basil called 'Dark Opal.' The African parent is a perennial shrub from forests of Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, valued for its camphor scent."
And, says Katie, the coolest thing is that the plants are pretty indestructible: "It was a great find because we’re able to have basil year-round. And it doesn’t suffer from mildew issues that regular basils suffer from, and it’s not quite as fragile, so it stores well in the refrigerator." Fun! To store your herbs, take them out of the bag and wrap them lightly in a kitchen towel (especially if your fridge runs cold). Put them in a plastic bag that's large enough to hold the basil bundle and also have some air in the bag; air circulation within the bag helps keep it fresher, longer.
Next up, walnuts: Take a taste and you'll notice the flavor is probably quite different than what you associate with walnuts. That's because these little pieces are black walnuts (not English, the variety usually found in stores). They’re a little floral and have an assertive, rich flavor.
The walnuts come from two Path Valley producers, Edna and Paul. Edna is known as the walnut lady: anybody who has walnuts but doesn’t have the time or inclination to pick them out of their shells takes them to Edna, says Katie. She’s got a really cool walnut cracker that’s three feet long. Paul is on a farm that his family’s had for a few generations, working off of trees that his dad planted way back when; he has an ancient walnut cracker that his dad made, entirely different from Edna's. About two years ago he was so concerned it would bust that he replicated it. Now he has two walnut pickers. :)
The obvious thing to do with your walnuts and basil is make some pesto. I toasted my walnuts for about 10 minutes at 350 degrees, just to bring out their unique flavor, but you don't have to if you don't feel like it. Pesto is great because you really don't need a recipe: just whir some walnuts, basil (stems and all!), olive oil, and salt in a small food processor or blender (or a large mortar and pestle if you're channeling La Nonna Lidia). Add some grated hard cheese if you have it and want it (I didn't!), and/or a generous splash of something acidic (I used Keepwell's bitter lemon vinegar). Taste as you go, add more of whatever you need, until your mixture is as saucy or paste-like as you want. It's all up to you!
And finally, the moment you've all been waiting for: Jerusalem artichokes, aka sunchokes.
Let's start with the bad news: sunchokes can cause stomach cramps, gas, and/or diarrhea. That's because they've got a carbohydrate called inulin, which can be hard for the human gut to digest. Not everyone will feel it, some people will feel it more than others, and it might also depend on the particular sunchoke itself. Sunchokes aren't necessarily great to bring to a potluck, but on the bright side, you're not going to potlucks right now — so this is just the time to try out the tubers and see how they go. :)
Now onto the cool historical facts! Out of the few cookbooks I own that include sunchoke recipes, Joan Nathan's King Solomon's Table (which full disclosure I helped edit/recipe test) includes the best bits of historical context. Here are some fun sunchoke facts to pull out at your next virtual happy hour:
- French explorer Samuel de Champlain, while in Cape Cod in 1605, noted: "Saw an abundance of Brazilian beans, many edible squashes of various sizes, tobacco and roots, which they cultivate, the latter having the taste of artichokes." (Two years later, in Nova Scotia, he found small roots that tasted like "truffles, which are very good if roasted or boiled.")
- French and Dutch gardeners sent these artichoke-like tubers to England, where Dr. Venner from Bath grew them in his garden (which was called Ter Neussen). The tubers thus became known as "artichokes ter neussen," which we can all agree is a terrible name. Wherever they were sold, no one understood what they were.
- Eventually, since the Holy Land was quite popular in the late 17th century, they took on the name "Jerusalem artichoke."
- In an 1877 issue of The American Journal of Science, botanist Asa Gray noted that indigenous people in Virginia called the tubers "kaischuc penauk" which means "sun roots" — and therefore "sun-root" would be a better name.
- Fast forward 89 years: in 1966, the late Frieda Caplan (founder of Frieda's Specialty Produce) trademarked the name "Sunchoke," saying that she preferred this name because "they are not from Jerusalem and not an artichoke, although they are reminiscent of the artichoke heart flavor, and because they are the root of a sunflower-like plant."
- Frieda once received a postcard asking how to get rid of flatulence from sunchokes. The postcard was sent by Julia Child.
"This is all great but what do I do with them," you ask? The good news: these sunchokes have thin skins, so you only need to scrub them of any dirt before roasting (no peeling required!).
Katie likes to roast them with a little olive oil, rosemary, and salt. "It’s the rosemary that’s really the kicker there," she says. "If you do a little broil at the end they get a little crispy."
They also pair well with mushrooms: I sliced some into 1/4-inch-thick pieces, drizzled with oil, salt, and pepper, then roasted at 450 degrees for 15 minutes before adding some thinly sliced mushrooms, dried tarragon, and roasting for 15 minutes more.
In Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi roast Jerusalem artichokes with par-boiled small potatoes (the fingerlings from Path Valley would work well!), garlic, olive oil, sage, salt, and pepper. After things roast at 400 degrees for 30 minutes, they add thinly sliced lemon (peel and all) and roast another 20 minutes before adding some cherry tomatoes, pitted olives, and parsley,
In Samarkand: Recipes and Stories from Central Asia and the Caucasus, Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford dice some Jerusalem artichokes to cook with rice, shallots, parsley, and tarragon. (The tubers are called "yer elmasi" in Turkish, literally meaning "ground apples.")
If you feel like smashing something (which, fair), Sara Moulton in her Home Cooking 101 says to boil sunchokes until they're mostly tender, then remove from the water, smash them with the back of a fork (but keep them intact), and fry in a thin layer of olive oil until browned and crispy. Season with salt, pepper, and a sprinkle of cheese, if you'd like.
And perhaps one of my favorite ways to make sunchokes/Jerusalem artichokes is pureed into soup (usually with a few potatoes, too). If you do this, top your soup with some clean kraut to get a kick of acid.
Happy cooking, let us know what you make!
P.S. You can now order OYSTERS (for home delivery, Tuesdays only)!!! Time to perfect your oyster shucking skills.
P.S.S. In need of onions, garlic, or ginger? ¿Por qué no los tres? Add the OGG tip to your delivery and you'll get two to three onions, a head of garlic, and a knob of organic ginger. $5 of every tip goes to Number 1 Sons staff.