Staring Down the Sunchoke

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Photo by Mike Nizza

I'd never plan to make pasta two nights in a row. Really. But the stars were aligned this time. The night before, I had no choice but to abort my attempt at a dish of fresh pasta and clams in favor of a more rustic approach using dried linguine instead. Left behind was a batch of dough I had kneaded myself, and it wouldn't keep in the fridge for more than another day.

Another good problem: a pile of sunchokes, the sexed-up name for Jerusalem artichokes. Julie and I had gone all googly-eyed over them at the last two restaurants we'd gone to, yet I had never tried to make them myself.

At one place, they were chopped into roasty bits as a side dish. In the other, they were pureed in a silky soup topped with crème fraîche. Both irresistible, and both a far cry from dinner. To promote the sunchoke to main course seemed logical, yet I found precious little guidance for ideas in online recipe databases and books in my house.

These fellas are ugly: gnarlier than your average tuber and less charismatic than soaring ginger men. Of course, I knew they were beautiful on the inside.

So I gazed upon the sunchokes in a bowl on the counter, searching for inspiration and finding none at all. These fellas are ugly: gnarlier than your average tuber and less charismatic than soaring ginger men. Of course, I knew they were beautiful on the inside.

With a huge brush in hand and the bowl of dirty sunchokes to my right, I turned on the faucet and began to scrub. Fifteen minutes later, they were clean (or as clean as they could be) and everything else was filthy. Silt splattered my forehead and the cabinet a foot above it. Investigators working for CSI: Napa would have no trouble finding signs of a sunchoke struggle, even days later.

Luckily, that was the hardest part. The zen state that befell me as I scrubbed led me to think about what I had in the pantry and refrigerator. Long pastas like the ones in the linguine and clams a day earlier were out of the question--blatant repetition. So I'd need to do some kind of stuffed pasta, the best kind to make at home anyway. After all, where am I ever going to buy sunchoke ravioli? The tricky part would be balancing the richness and sweetness of the chokes with other flavors. If you've ever had butternut squash-filled pasta that tasted like dessert, you know why sweet pasta is the worst.

Once the pasta dough was rolled out to thin sheets, I piped in the purée, which also included a bit of tahini to amplify the nuttiness and ricotta cheese to lighten things up. Rather than trying and failing to create perfectly square raviolis, I ended up with a motley crew.

Playfulness seemed to suit the occasion. A simple sauce of melted butter struck me as too plain, so I dropped some frozen peas into a pan full of melting butter. They popped in the pan. Nothing goes better with peas than ham, so I asked Julie to start tearing prosciutto di Parma into the tiniest bits possible. On the plate, there was still something missing: crunch. I quickly toasted some sesame seeds, the backbone of tahini.

A few minutes later, there was an echo of sighs at the table--the kind that comes involuntarily while tasting something wonderful.