I have started planning my future vegetable garden. It really is the most satisfying and comforting activity during the winter months, requiring very little action and a good amount of dreaming. For now, it is very much a “garden” but may very well shrink to “patch” as I slowly realise the skill, knowledge and time involved. Also, as the years go by, I have come to understand the value of merely observing a new house and garden for a long while before making any changes. Annoyingly, a small fire in my kitchen in November required me to be away from my home for almost two months, so I have missed out a little on winter wisdom gathering, not to mention cooking.
This year, then, will be one of learning patience, and will very probably be given over to preparing the terrain, observing sun and shade in the space and working out just what I can do with, and for, the rather neglected soil. With a third of an acre, I won’t be rescuing old Percheron horses any time soon, but I am certainly hoping to lodge a chicken or two. Luckily, there is already a large raised bed installed just outside my kitchen, currently a most successful home to a mixture of brambles, thyme and rogue geranium. This is where I shall first start growing my food, and I cannot wait.
For this first year, the plants making it into The Bed must be both beautiful, interesting and provide my favourite things to eat. I’m thinking lots of different types of basil, shiso, and robust, frothy, aromatic plants with pretty flowers like fennel and roquette, raspberries, red and blackcurrants. They must grow high and thick and, most importantly, resist my inevitable tendency to kill them. Needing to be propped up by some kind of attractive cane or willow structure is definitely a plus. Thankfully, ex-River Cottage gardener and food writer, Mark Diacono, agrees with my rather non-worthy, reverse approach to growing edibles. He famously “lets his tastebuds call the shots” and his books (The New Kitchen Gardener, Veg Patch, My Tiny Veg Plot, The Food Lover’s Garden) are already inspiring me with talk of mulberries, cardoons and medlars, mizuna and Szechuan pepper, leaving the spuds, leeks and carrots to the professionals.
One plant which is firmly on The Bed’s shortlist is Jerusalem artichoke. It is neither an artichoke nor from Jerusalem but a vigorous rhizome – not yet a frightening enough word association to this amateur – from North America which grows tall and straight and flowers in spiky, sunflower-like blooms. It also makes great compost. (Another wonderful effect of Mark’s books is they make you feel like an expert before you have even lifted a trowel.) Mostly, though, they are delicious, versatile vegetables.
Christmas Day 2019 involved a marathon lunch at Alain Passard’s Arpège and of the dozen or so dishes, my favourite was a dessert of pale macaron, filled with sweet vanilla and Jerusalem artichoke cream and topped with a slick of darkest chocolate. One of Passard’s famous dishes is a soufflé version of this combination, but I am glad in that here, it came cold, not warm, and it was sublime. Earlier, we had been served an ethereal velouté of Jerusalem artichoke with cream infused with speck and the “sunchoke” is now officially my most beloved winter vegetable.
It does have its drawbacks, of course. It is rather fiddly to peel and it’s best to do it after steaming if you are not roasting it. There are also undeniable digestive side-effects due to the high levels of inulin it contains. You can reduce them by boiling the chokes in lemon, but inulin is good for your gut, and it is what gives the little knobbly tuber its sweet, earthy flavour. Jerusalem artichokes are in season from November to March, so seek them out, and use their creamy texture and distinctive flavour in both savoury and sweet dishes until spring brings colour and crunch to our plates once more.
Alain Passard’s Jerusalem artichoke and vanilla soufflé
The purée should not be too loose or thick but smooth and creamy – not like mashed potato! Also important is to prepare the soufflé dishes with the butter and sugar. This is a dessert you have to keep an eye on, so your guests will simply have to wait while it cooks. You can prepare the purée before the meal, but make sure it is at room temperature, not straight from the fridge, before mixing in the meringue.
10 minutes preparation
50 minutes cooking
200g Jerusalem artichokes • 1 vanilla pod • 100ml full fat fresh milk • 4 egg whites • 120g caster sugar plus 2 to 3 tsps for the soufflé dishes • 15g butter • 8 squares of good dark chocolate, 70 per cent or more
1. Heat the oven to 240oC.
2. Pour the milk into a saucepan, peel the artichokes, slice them finely and drop them into the milk. Split the vanilla in two, scrape out the grains and add them and the pod to the pan.
3. Bring to a low simmer and let the artichokes cook until they are very soft, but not falling apart.
4. The milk should have mostly evaporated by this stage. Remove the vanilla pod and blitz the vegetables to a fine purée. Leave to cool.
5. Whisk the egg whites, adding the sugar little by little until you have a shiny, firm meringue.
6. Mix it into the artichoke purée gently, using a spatula, to retain as much air as possible.
7. Butter four small soufflé dishes, sprinkle them with a little caster sugar to help the soufflés to rise.
8. Fill the dishes to half full, set the chocolate in the middle, then fill to 1 cm from the top.
9. Cook for 6 to 8 minutes until they are perfectly risen and slightly golden on top. Serve immediately.
Salt and vinegar Jerusalem Artichokes
A nice little accompaniment to roast or grilled meat or good as a quick main with a creamy tahini yoghurt dressing and salad. Here, I’ve spared you the peeling. All you need to do is give the artichokes a good scrub. Add garlic, thyme or rosemary when frying the artichoke if you wish.
10 minutes preparation
40 minutes cooking
700g Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed, cut into 2/3 cm chunks • 2 tbsps vegetable oil • 75g butter • 3 tbsps cider vinegar • Salt and pepper
1. Steam the artichoke chunks until they are soft but still have a little bite and hold their shape. About 30 minutes.
2. Heat the oil in a heavy pan with the butter and fry the vegetable until they are crispy and browned. Add the vinegar to deglaze, stirring well as the liquid evaporates to cover the pieces of artichoke. Scrape up the tasty bits while you are stirring and mixing.
3. Season with salt and vinegar and serve immediately.
Jerusalem Artichoke creams with pears, pecans and maple syrup
Another dessert idea which can be made completely in advance and therefore save your sanity much better than a tricksy soufflé. Use this as your soufflé warm-up.
For 4 to 6
15 minutes preparation
40 minutes cooking
400g Jerusalem artichokes, peeled • 60g condensed milk • 200ml double cream • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
For the crumble
30g salted butter, melted • 30g plain flour • 30g sugar • 15g ground almonds • 30g chopped pecans • 2 ripe pears • 1 tsp lemon juice • 2 tbsps maple syrup
1. Steam the artichokes until soft then blitz them in a blender with the condensed milk and a tablespoon of the double cream. Add the vanilla extract and leave to cool.
2. Beat the cream until it is firm, then mix it into the cooled artichoke purée and keep in the fridge until you are ready to serve.
3. Heat the oven to 160°C. Mix all the crumble ingredients together, spread them onto a baking sheet lined with parchment or silicone and cook for 8 to 10 minutes or so – until the crumble takes on a nice golden hue. Leave to cool.
4. Peel and cut the pears into slices or cubes. Mix with lemon juice and maple syrup.
5. Serve the vanilla creams topped with the pears and crumble.
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