The Corps of Discovery Expedition set out in May of 1804 with 7 tons of food packed into the hull of their 55-foot, custom-built keelboat designed to navigate the waters of the Missouri River. Led by Meriwhether Lewis and William Clark, the legendary group consisted of 31 additional men, and had been charged by then president Thomas Jefferson with exploring the vast expanse of land he had just purchased from France. They were tasked with charting the new territory, and were required to report back on every interaction with new species of plants and animals, and tribes of Native Americans they met with along the way. This meant sending back samples to Jefferson so that he could report to congress on the merits of the new territory he had acquired and explain why he had just used a great deal of US debt to buy land that some considered to have little or no use.
The group would be gone for over two years, which meant that whatever they had brought to sustain them needed to be non-perishable, and that at some point it would run out. For the first part of the journey, their diet would consist mainly of salted meat, grain, dried beans, dried soup stock, sugar, lard, and whiskey, relying heavily on hunting wild game to augment their finite supply of food. While this menu sounds like a nice provision for a bachelor party or NFL tailgate, it is not the most stimulating or healthy diet, especially considering the strenuous nature of the trip. There were many points in the river that were much too shallow for the boat, and required the men to take mammoth, overland trips for many miles, dragging the massive structure with them. The amount of calories required were unfathomable, and it is recorded in Lewis’ journal that the men would individually eat up to nine pounds of meat in a day.
Since they were moving through territory that was controlled completely by relatively unknown Native American tribes, they had included some more experienced translators in their party, including Toussaint Charbonneau who, because of his proclivity as a Frenchman for river travel and trapping, knew the waters and subsequently the nature and languages of some of the people they were to meet. More importantly, he brought along his wife, a teenage Shoshone woman named Sacagawea who, in addition to acting as a translator, helped them find wild fruits, nuts, and vegetables to offset the protein heavy diet of the crew. One particular delight she introduced to them along the way was a species of sunflower with an edible root cultivated by the tribes in the area. She called them “earth apples” and they became quite welcome respite for the men, who boiled or fried them like potatoes.
Samples made their way back to Monticello, and eventually the popularity of the vegetable spread to Europe. The Italians referred to it simply as girasole (sunflower), which was then bastardized by the English, who referred to them as Jerusalem Artichokes. Today we simply call them Sunchokes, because they are neither an artichoke, nor are they endemic to Jerusalem. They are similar in texture to the potato, but have a much more complex, deep, nutty flavor. They can be roasted, sliced thin and fried, eaten raw, pickled, or confited. They compliment both meat and seafood dishes because of their strength in flavor and minerality, respectively. The most simple way to prepare them is by pan frying them in a cast iron skillet and finishing them in the oven.
One pound sunchokes, cut into evenly sized pieces
Animal fat or vegetable oil
Chopped herbs (anything you want, we like parsley and tarragon)
Salt and Pepper
Set your oven to 425. Get a cast iron pan on your stove relatively hot, and add the fat/oil and sunchokes to the pan. If you pat the sunchokes down with a paper towel before frying they will caramelize better due to the lack of evaporating moisture. Let them sit without moving them until you notice they are browning. At this point, give them either one toss or a good stir, and continue to let them sit, untouched. We are often too eager to flip our food around, which discourages even, deep caramelization. The starch exposed to heat will ultimately turn to sugar if you take the time, making it an increasingly delicious vegetable. Once the sunchokes are evenly cooked, place them in the oven, checking them every ten minute or so to see if they have become tender. You can eat them when they are easily pierced with a fork or knive, but I like to eat them when they have become super-soft. In this state they are sweet, savory, and chewy. Take the pan out, put in back on the stove, and add a good amount of butter, herbs, and salt to taste. This is the ultimate side-dish for a drizzly evening.
Using the principles discussed above, we can make a soup from essentially the same recipe. All you need to add is:
Good chicken or vegetable stock
½ cup cream
Cut the sunchokes into smaller, thinner pieces. This will increase the surface area caramelized during the frying process, making your soup all the more flavorful when blended. Fry everything until very, very brown. Pour into a blender with enough stock to cover, adding cream and butter to finish. Blend until smooth, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve with a garnish of herbs, adding more cream if your heart desires.
These guys should go in the fridge, as they will not keep like other root crops on your kitchen counter. They should be eaten fairly quickly; most growers will leave them in the ground and harvest according to what they want to eat. The longer they stay in the ground exposed to the cold, the better their flavor becomes. Compare your sunchokes from November to the ones you get in January!