11 March 2012

World’s Best Recipe for Topinambours

Topinambours in their raw state.
They look nothing like artichokes, as you can see,
and I don’t taste much of a resemblance, either.

Countless readers — or anyway, one reader — have demanded that I share with them my recipe for topinambours, known in English as Jersualem artichokes or “sunchokes,” a name which is guaranteed to prevent people from eating them. On the other hand, if nobody else eats them, that leaves more for me, doesn’t it? So call ’em what you will, but I’m sticking with the French. It’s a nice word that sounds rather like some sort of toy or clown.

Culled from the roots of a member of the sunflower family, topinambours are among the légumes oubliés, or “forgotten vegetables,” which the French swore off when the Occupation ended. Under the Nazi administration, the Germans got all the good stuff to eat, leaving for the French the sorts of things (rutabaga, winter squash, crosnes, etc.) to which they were indifferent at best, and of which they quickly had their fill. A couple of generations of Frenchmen wouldn’t even touch topinambours, but they’ve been making a comeback in recent years.

Topinambours (above) with yellow turnips, another “forgotten vegetable,” one January morning at Franck’s vegetable stand in the Beynes market.

That said, topinambours are exceptionally hard to find, and you expose yourself to comment from your neighbors when you buy them. I learned this firsthand at the town marketplace in Beynes, where my veg vendor, Franck, made a point of selecting the best and easiest to peel specimens. He wanted to make an example of me, so that perhaps other customers would take the topinambours off his hands, but I’m not sure he ever succeeded.

Topinambours are well worth the effort (and potential embarrassment and ostracism), with a naturally nutty, buttery flavor to reward you in the end. But it’s important at all times to remember the topinambour’s history, because the secret to preparing them properly is pain and suffering.

Recently, I found topinambours at a farmers’ market in Manhattan, and paid roughly four times for them what Franck would have charged. I took them home and prepared them — exactly as I would have done in my charming kitchen in the French countryside. Please note that there are fancier recipes than mine, but believe me, you won’t have the patience to try them.

Remembered vegetables: Another view of Franck’s stand.
This picture was taken in summer, when topinambours aren’t in season.

1. Get a sack full of topinambours from your vegetable vendor. Never mind about the amount: no matter how few you purchase, you will have too many, as you will understand when you start to peel them.

2. Try not to listen to the remarks your neighbors are making behind your back: “Mais qu’est-ce qu’il fout, l’Américain là? C’est quoi, ces petites crottes de chien qu’il achète, bordel? Moi, je ne toucherais jamais un tel truc! Putain!” Return to your charming kitchen in the French countryside.

3. Even in America, topinambours are covered in gritty, gritty, stubborn dirt when you buy them. Don’t bother to wash them yet. What would be the point?

3. Peel each topinambour. If you are in France, it’s probable that you don’t have a vegetable peeler with a pivoting blade: this is an American innovation, apparently, and French people are always amazed by it. (“Qu’est-ce que c’est, ce petit truc? Mais c’est génial! Putain!”) French peelers are immovable objects, as you will discover when you begin to work; in most kitchens, peelers tend to be very dull, as well.

4. The peel of the topinambour is not terribly thick, but it’s difficult to remove because of the knobby shapes of each root. Dirt remains trapped inside the crevices, and little bumps and outcroppings resist the most adroit peeling technique. Be ruthless!

5. While peeling, try not to think about how much money you have spent on parts of the topinambour that you will only throw out.

6. Peeling topinambours is very, very tedious. If you are working at the sink in your charming kitchen in the French countryside, it’s also stoop labor: our sink was made to measure for the previous owner of the house, a spinster schoolteacher who was teeny-tiny. But whatever you do, don’t think about how much your back is starting to hurt.

7. In order to finish sometime before you die of boredom, try to peel faster. Faster!

8. Faster!

9. Cut your finger.

10. Sometimes it’s easier to cut away the larger knobs, because there’s no way you can get a peeler between the parts, and this way you can just trim and peel and then you’ve got a nice little piece of topinambour.

11. Use a small paring knife.

12. Cut another finger.

This is what a sharpened paring knife looks like.
Just so you know.

13. Remember, it’s not a good day in the kitchen if you don’t pick up your paring knife the wrong way at least a couple of times.

14. Cut the palm of your hand.

15. Don’t bother to wash your cuts. Those kitchen knives really aren’t that old and rusty! You’re in a hurry. And remember that it’s always a good idea to fortify your food with extra minerals, such as iron.

16. Several minutes after your patience has worn thin and your wounds are stinging, finish peeling the topinambours. Rinse under cold water to remove whatever remains of all that dirt and grit.

17. Know in your heart that there is no way you will ever be able to remove all the dirt, and you are sure to find some peel on your plate at suppertime, too.

The few topinambours here resulted in enough peelings
to fill this large coffee mug.

18. Toss the topinambours in a pot of boiling, lightly salted water. Allow to cook until pieces are tender. The consistency will be very much like that of a firm-fleshed boiled potato, such as Yukon Gold.

19. Drain, toss in a little butter, chopped shallots, maybe some parsley if you have any.

20. Serve — in small portions!

21. Because topinambours are notorious for provoking severe flatulence. I wasn’t kidding about the pain and suffering, you see.

They made an excellent accompaniment to the chicken I roasted last week, and at one meal I mixed them with some green peas. Quite delicious.

1 comment:

Jérôme said...

You can make a soup of it, a velouté with some cream: when masched you won't notice the peel left!