I make a lot of soup in the winter. Working from home, it’s great to have a selection of home-made soups in the freezer to easily pull out and warm through for lunch. I always freeze them in single portions so it doesn’t take long to thaw and heat through – and if you have anyone else around, then just take out more packets! This is one of my favourite winter soups. When I went along to the local farmers’ market in Twickenham on Saturday morning, I saw punnets of these wonderful knobbly vegetables. Despite their name, they have nothing to do with Jerusalem and are not related to globe artichokes. They are actually part of the sunflower family; they are the tubers of a plant that has a very pretty sunflower-like flower. Their flavour is somewhere between that of the heart of a globe artichoke and potato.
I first came to love Jerusalem artichokes back in the seventies when I was working full time as a book editor and editing a lot of cookery books. I commissioned a book called Fresh From the Garden which was written by Robin Howe and Roger Grounds and published in 1979. Robin was a prolific author and one of our most respected cookery writers at the time; Roger was a pioneering organic gardener in the days before we had to choose between organic or non-organic in the supermarket and the book had wonderful suggestions for natural ways to get rid of bugs and a chapter called ‘Good Companions, Bad Companions’.
When I first came to know Jerusalem artichokes it was generally recommended that you peel them, which is a tedious task that’s enough to put you off cooking them often. Nowadays, I don’t bother but just give them a good scrub with a brush under running cold water. I mostly use them for soup but they do make a wonderful alternative to potatoes with roasts and one of my favourite of Robin’s recipes was to cook them au gratin. First boil them, skin them, then cut into thick slices and lay in a well-buttered dish. Mix some fresh breadcrumbs with grated cheese (Parmesan is best), salt and pepper, chopped parsley and some lemon juice. Scatter over the artichokes and dot with some butter and bake. Glorious!
Soup was definitely on the agenda today because I roasted a lovely chicken from The Village Butcher (part of Food on the Hill) yesterday and have had a nice big pot of stock simmering this morning. And my delicious Jerusalem Artichoke Soup was ready just in time for lunch!
Jerusalem Artichoke Soup
My punnet of Jerusalem artichokes contained about 700g. They are root vegetables so can be quite dirty so scrub them well with a brush in cold water and cut into chunks. Peel a large potato and cut into similar sized chunks. (The addition of some potato makes for a better taste and texture as the artichokes are quite sweet and their texture woody.) Chop a medium onion. Melt a good knob of butter (about 25g) with a couple of tablespoons olive oil in a large saucepan and once the butter has melted, add the chopped vegetables. Add a few sprigs of fresh thyme and some parsley and season with salt and pepper (not too much salt because you’ll be adding salted stock soon). Now finely grate the zest of half a lemon over the vegetables and squeeze in the juice and give it a good stir to mix all the ingredients together well. Allow to gently cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally. I like to gently fry the vegetables until softening as I think it enhances and deepens the flavours. Now, once nicely cooked but not quite browning, add enough stock to cover, pop the lid on and leave to simmer for about half an hour.
When the vegetables will easily crush against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon, it’s ready to blend. I use a hand blender and do it in the same cooking pan. I like to leave it nice and thick but depending on how it turns out and you like it, you can adjust the thickness by adding some more stock or hot water at this stage. Taste to check seasoning and then serve. I had some cream in the fridge so drizzled some in the centre with some chopped parsley. The soup has a fabulous flavour: deep and earthy, sweet and slightly nutty (a little like chestnuts). It’s also very rich which is why the addition of some lemon helps to cut through the richness and brings a wonderful freshness to the dish.