Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Winter Roots - Oca, Salsify, Jerusalem Artichoke

Vaguely untimely, this article appeared in Permaculture Magazine, (67, Spring 2011), Part 2 to follow shortly...

Wearied of frostbitten greens, sprouts and mincemeat, pickles and preserves, the temptation is to plunge, without a glance backward, into the onset of Spring.  I would first like to offer one last eulogy to winter vegetables, to three of the less common and more remarkable tubers, hoarded in the dank depths of the vegetable underworld.


These, beside their ruddy counterparts, are the rockstars of the roots: sultry, elegant, with extravagant tastes, ebullient spirits…  But this isn’t about their looks.  Stubby, grubby and hairy, they are the sweetest, the most delicate flavoured, most exotic of the roots.
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKEHelianthus tuberosus
Towering eight-feet-high in triffid-esque arrogance, the stalks nodding with yellow flowerheads at the height of Summer, the Jerusalem Artichoke, also known as the Sunchoke, is related to the Sunflower.  Indeed, the name Jerusalem is thought to come from a confusion with the original name, originating in Peru, the Girasol. They are one of the most labour-free plants to grow, and if a few tubers are left in the ground when harvesting, will provide a crop the following year.  Unfortunately, the Jerusalem Artichoke is famed for being the cause of foul wind and tortuous flatulence – I have yet to hear of a sure-fire remedy.  But their sweet, delicate flavour, reminiscent of artichokes, keeps me growing and eating them.  As for the baneful after-effects I have a couple of suggestions.  Don’t eat Jerusalem Artichokes in large quantities and try and combine them with herbs and spices that ease digestion such as fennel, bay and cumin.  I also take the time to first peel and blanche the vegetables in acidulated water (add vinegar or lemon-juice), which is then discarded, in an attempt to lessen the effects. 

You can roast, soup and mash Jerusalem artichokes, or eat them raw as, somewhat surprisingly, you can most roots… Their reputation has taken a recent upturn and they are to be found, in the form of diaphanous Soufflés and Veloutés, in the very highest realms of haute cuisine.

Jerusalem Artichoke Purée
Purée Jerusalem Artichokes for a jazzed-up variation on mashed potatoes.  Peel, then boil in acidulated water with a potato.  When beginning to fall apart, drain and blend with butter and black pepper.

Jerusalem Artichoke Salad
For the sassiest raw Winter salad.  Slice very thinly, cover immediately with lemon juice to prevent discolouring.  Add walnut oil and toss with toasted walnuts.  Sprinkle with chives or an available green.

SALSIFY- Tragopogon porrifolius
Salsify, or Scorzanera – the two varieties vary only slightly – can be planted in Autumn for a Winter harvest.  A showering grass-like fountain above ground, Salsify tapers to a long hairy root.  It is related to the Jerusalem Artichoke but, fortunately, did not inherit the side effects.  Its taste is light and difficult to define, somewhere between oysters, chestnut and coconut.  It can be put in gratin, and the Irish chef Dennis Cotter, of Café Paradiso renown, braises it with star anise...  I think, as with all these delicate roots, it’s best as it is.

Salsify as it is
Boil unpeeled for twenty to thirty minutes in acidulated water (it exudes a sticky, milky sap and discolours).  Once cooked slip off the skin and add a squeeze of lemon juice or Umeboshi seasoning for a breathtaking combination.  A nut-oil or a knob of butter gives a gentler flavour.  Serve warm with salt and pepper to taste. 

OCA – Oxalis tuberosa
Oca, long unknown, has likewise recently hit the headlines of haute cuisine.  The tubers are planted like potatoes in Spring and grow slowly to be harvested in the depths of Winter.  A shrub of shamrock shaped leaves and pretty yellow flowers, it originates in Latin America.  The leaves and flowers are edible and make pretty additions to Summer salads, but the plant is high in oxalic-acid so beware of gorging!

Oca on the table
Like a lemon-scented new potato in the depths of December, the tuber is a welcome addition to the Winter table.  Serve as new potatoes for that Summer zing, roast in their skins with garlic and rosemary for a taste of Italy, or cook up with cinnamon, ground ginger and orange rind for a festive feel. 

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