Friday, February 25, 2011

Sunchoke Soup with Speck and Aji Peppers

Food Network’s Chopped presents competing chefs with baskets of challenging ingredients and gives them a short time to invent and prepare an appetizer, an entre, or a dessert that features these ingredients. Recent episodes have presented contestants with everything from goat brains to durian, the Southeast Asian fruit delicacy with such a strong smell that it is typically banned from hotel rooms or public transportation. (I have tried durian twice, and I can attest to both its terrible odor and its really strange flavor - it combines notes of a sweet, creamy custard with strong onion overtones.  Probably one of the world's ultimate “acquired tastes.”)  One of the less challenging but still quite interesting ingredients that featured recently was speck, which the Chopped judges described as similar to a smoked pancetta. My wife and I learned about speck when we lived in Switzerland, where we frequently used it instead of bacon. It is much less common in the U.S., but it is available: to prepare the recipe presented below, we used La Quceria Speck Americano, available at our local Whole Foods Market. Not as heavily smoked as the typical Italian speck, it was still quite good and worked well in the dish. Alternatively, other, more traditional brands can be purchased on-line, and they should work nicely, too (see Favorite Goodies from the Noodle Doodler for a couple of examples).

The sunchoke – or Jerusalem artichoke – is the root of a plant that belongs to the sunflower family. According to Alan Davidson’s The Penguin Companion to Food, the name derives from girasole, the Italian word for the sunflower. The name “Jerusalem artichoke” was the combined result of mispronunciation of girasole with a note in 1603 by the explorer Samuel de Champlain who encountered it in Canada and described its taste as “like an artichoke.” Since the plant has no real connection with either Jerusalem or artichokes, marketing considerations subsequently led to the name “sunchoke.” Whatever you choose to call it, this root vegetable is available all year, but according to the entry for it in Judy Gorman's Vegetable Cookbook, the peak season is from October through April. Smaller and sweeter than potatoes, they pair especially well with black pepper, lemon juice, and sea salt, according to my favorite source of such information, The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, who also recommend pairing with bacon, cumin and potatoes. The recipe given below for sunchoke soup uses most of these ingredients, with some minor substitutions (e.g., lime juice instead of lemon juice). It is adapted from one in Judy Gorman’s book (“Jerusalem artichoke soup” on page 172), with speck substituted for baked ham, and fresh Peruvian aji peppers added to give it a bit of a kick.

I used the aji peppers because they were featured during a limited-duration “pepper event” at our local Whole Foods Market. According to Barbara Karoff’s South American Cooking: Foods and Feasts from the New World, the term “aji” refers generically to all Andean peppers, but in Peru, it refers to the mirasol pepper, which she describes as “fiery hot,” noting that – at least in 1989 when her book was published – these peppers are rarely available in the U.S. Tasting a slice of one raw, I found it similar to a raw jalapeno – slightly hotter, but nothing like the screaming heat of a habanero. Karoff recommends the hontaka as a reasonable substitute as they are often available in Latin or Asian markets, but jalapenos are probably an easier substitution. If you like hot food, the nice thing about this soup is that, like a really good wine, the balance of flavors changes during the course of each taste: here, you first taste the spinach, then the other ingredients come into play, and finally the heat from the chili kicks in at the end. We found that it went especially well with Olde Burnside Brewing Company’s Ten Penny Ale.

Sunchoke Soup with Speck and Aji Peppers


6 cups chicken broth
1 pound sunchokes, peeled and quartered
1 medium russet potato, peeled and quartered
1 3 oz. package speck, cut into small pieces
2 tablespoons lime juice
1/8 teaspoon ground cumin
5 oz fresh baby spinach
3 fresh aji peppers (or substitute 1 large jalapeno)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ cup whipping cream


  1. Chop the peppers into thin rings. Combine the peppers, chicken broth, sunchokes, potatoes, and speck in a large saucepan. Cover and cook on low heat until vegetables are tender, about 20 minutes.
  2. Transfer the mixture to a food processor and blend until smooth. Return to the saucepan and stir in the lime juice and cumin.
  3. Chiffonade the baby spinach, add to the saucepan long enough to wilt, about five minutes. Season with salt and pepper, stir in the cream, and heat gently about five minutes longer. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve.

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