You know, for a minute there I thought we might never see each other again. It has been over a year since my last blog post was published on The Chopping Blog, and what a year it has been. We’ve all lived through the same nightmare so I won’t insult your intelligence by pretending we’re all having a great time. We’re not. 2020 was a seemingly endless expanse of nearly identical days punctuated by a series of social and environmental horrors. Some so outlandish that it felt like were were living through the series finale of some darkly dystopian sci-fi drama written by people with no regard for believability (UFO disclosure, anyone?). And then 2021 came, and… nothing changed (well… some things changed). But through all of this there has been one area of my life that has helped me keep a hopeful outlook, no matter what fresh agony the next day might bring; and that—of course—is food.
Even though preparing food has become a source of guilt (for not doing it enough) or irritation (for having to do it so much), the enjoyment of it has remained a beacon lighting the way forward in an otherwise lurid and melancholy procession toward an unknowable future. Having the privilege to indulge in something delicious can be a much needed balm for the soul-chafing monotony that can come with interminable isolation. Delicious food can be an eye opening morale boost, and food is at its most delicious when it's made using fresh, local ingredients.
Unfortunately in terms of local food in the northern United States, March is probably the bleakest month of the year. Nothing is growing yet, and all of the storage crops are beginning to lose their luster, or run out. Thankfully one of my favorite vegetables in the world is still in top form in March, and can be found locally fairly easily: sunchokes. If you’re not familiar with them, sunchokes (also sometimes called Jerusalem artichokes) are the delicious tubers of a particular type of sunflower. They are, in my opinion, the greatest root vegetable of all time. They taste like a potato made of toasted sunflower seeds and have a wonderful texture that can run the gamut from crunchy (they can be fried into chips that are at least an order of magnitude more delicious than potato chips), to creamy (potato puree could never…), and I don’t think I’ll ever tire of them.
A few years ago I wanted to make an inventive side dish for Thanksgiving that could ride the line between sweet and savory, but was still indulgent and satisfying. I decided to make a savory version of the fabled apple dessert Tart Tatin. I immediately decided I wanted to use sunchokes in place of the traditional apples. However, because of the sweet caramel that is integral to the dish I also knew it would be a delicate balancing act if I wanted it to come across as a savory or semi-savory dish, and not just a strange off-putting dessert served inexplicably with the rest of the meal. It was going to need a lot of sugar, and I settled on another local product that is at its freshest and most delicious in these transitional weeks before spring: maple syrup. Despite hailing from the Northeast (where the greatest maple syrup in the world comes from), I have actually been very impressed with the maple syrup coming from regional sugar-bushes here in the Midwest, so I encourage you to pick some up if you run across it.
In order to pull the dish back to the savory side, I knew I needed some big hits of umami. Enter: fish sauce and shallots. Some herbs and warming spices give the dish some nuance and complexity, and voila: an interesting and balanced dish that I think is quite enchanting.
So, enough bloviating and let’s get to the recipe.
Scroll down for a printable version of this recipe
Serves: 6-8, 1 9"inch tart
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 1 hour
500 grams of sunchokes (these vary widely in shape so… just weigh them)
200 grams (2/3 cup) maple syrup
20 grams (1 1/3 Tablespoon) fish sauce
45 grams (3 Tablespoons) apple cider vinegar
75 grams (1/3 cup) chicken stock
100 grams (7 Tablespoons) salted butter
35-40 grams (1 medium) shallot
4 sprigs (1 Tablespoon chopped) fresh thyme
1 bunch (1/2 cup chopped) fresh chives
1 whole nutmeg
500 grams puff pastry (homemade is best, but store bought works just fine)
Begin by prepping your ingredients. Slice the sunchokes thin (ideally about 2mm (a mandoline is ideal for this task, but don’t be like me and immediately cross section your finger tip; use a cut-resistant glove), cut your butter into small-ish chunks, mince your shallot, and chop your thyme. Wait to deal with the chives until later.
Combine the maple syrup, fish sauce, apple cider vinegar, and chicken stock in an oven-proof 9” pan. Bring the mixture to a boil over high heat and add your butter, swirling the pan until it’s melted.
Turn the heat down to low and start layering in the sliced sunchokes. Once you have a complete layer, sprinkle the sunchokes with a little salt (season conservatively because the fish sauce is quite salty), and some of your shallots and thyme. It doesn’t really matter how much you use per layer as long as all of them make it in the pan by the end. Finish the first layer with a light grating of the nutmeg (I use a Microplane grater for this).
Continue layering in this fashion until you’ve run out of sunchokes. Bring the pan back to a boil, then reduce the heat until the pan is at a strong simmer. Meanwhile roll out the puff pastry, and cut into a round about 1” wider in diameter than your pan (to account for shrinkage during baking). Dock it (poke with a fork) to aid in even rising, and return it to the refrigerator to rest while the sunchokes cook. Preheat the oven to 425.
Cook the sunchokes until the liquid in the pan has returned roughly to the viscosity of maple syrup (this should take about 20 minutes).
Lay the prepared puff pastry over top of the sunchokes.
Then place the pan on a parchment-lined baking sheet and place in the oven. Bake at 425 for 15 minutes, then turn the heat down to 375 and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until you puff pastry is deep golden brown and cooked through.
The pastry will settle as the tart cools.
While it’s cooling go ahead and slice your chives very thin, then un-mold the tart by placing a cutting board on top of the pan and inverting it. You may need to coax it out of the pan a little with a spatula.
Once the tart is safely on the board cover the top in the sliced chives.
Slice and plate to serve. If you like you can top it with a dollop of sour cream or creme fraiche.
I hope this recipe can put a little bit of shine back into your routine like it has mine, and if you’re interested in learning how to balance flavors to make your own cheerful dishes you should check out The Chopping Block's virtual interactive Flavor Dynamics class on Saturday, March 27 at 11am CST.