Cookâ€™s Illustrated, responsible food writing, and the â€˜fartichoke’
By Tom // Posted 26 March, 2016 in: Food + Drink
It was all born out of desperation.
Itâ€™s March, the dead time. As I seem to write on this blog every spring, weâ€™ve reached the point in the year where weâ€™re tired of eating the heavy winter dishes, but thereâ€™s really nothing fresh yet to speak of. Itâ€™s warmer, so we havenâ€™t beenÂ craving a hearty stew full of meat and winter vegetables. Unfortunately,Â asparagus and fresh radishes â€” hell, even rampsÂ â€” areÂ still weeks away. Iâ€™d been complaining to everyone about being stuck in a culinary rut. I needed a change â€” any change.
Enter the Jerusalem artichoke. Iâ€™d long been intrigued by these homelyÂ tubers, present on the shelves of the co-op throughout the winter and one of the few locally grown options at that time of year. But, other than that they come from sunflowers, I didnâ€™t know much about them â€” and certainly not how to cook them. So I was left to look, to wonder, but not to eat.
That all changed when the Marchâ€“April 2016 issue of Cookâ€™s Illustrated arrived at my door. Buried in the back of the issue, under Ingredient Notes, was a two-paragraph offering from Lan Lam under the title â€œJerusalem Artichokes: Another Tasty Tuberâ€ with a little background on the vegetable, and, more importantly, instructions for how to cook the things. Armed withÂ newÂ confidence, I bought a pound.
The preparation suggested by Cookâ€™s was simple enough: peel the â€™chokes, cut them into two-to-three inch chunks, brown them in butter, then add water, cover the pan, and steam for 25 minutes. This produced a relatively mushy vegetable â€” I think Iâ€™d have liked them a little firmer, though Lam writes that tasters preferred this cooked-sweet-potato-like texture. The flavor was pretty good; vaguely reminiscent of artichokes, maybe artichokes crossed with potatoes. I served them withÂ pork cutlets.
A few hours later, the first rumblings of trouble began. Rumblings in my gut. Rumblings that grew to be more than rumblings.
And then more.
Look, Iâ€™ll spare you the details, but letâ€™s just say that by three in the morning I was up, out of bed, and re-enacting a certain climactic scene from the seminal â€™90s cinematic masterpiece Dumb & Dumber.
In the morning, I wracked my brain, thinking of everything I had eaten the day before. Leftover chicken and rice for lunch? Only made a day before, it should still have been fine. Something wrong with the pork? But it was also fresh, and Iâ€™d handled it properly when raw. There was only one x-factor, and that was the artichokes. I googled â€œjerusalem artichoke digestion.â€
And thatâ€™s when I first sawÂ the term â€œfartichoke.â€
As it turns out, the Jerusalem artichoke is 76% inulin, aÂ carbohydrate that, whatever other virtues it may possess, cannot be broken down by the human digestive system. That means it all just passes through you till it hits your large intestine, where various microbes are all too happy to feast away. And they produce gas. Potentially, a lot of it.
This got me thinking about the ethics of recipe-writing. Didnâ€™t Cook’s Illustrated have a duty to warn me about the hazards I was about to visit on myself and my family?
Generally, IÂ think about a recipe-writerâ€™s responsibilities with questions like,Â â€œDo the instructions work?â€ and, â€œDoes the dish taste good?â€
But there are assumptions more fundamental than that. For example, that a recipe isnâ€™t poisonous â€” that it wonâ€™t kill those who eat it. (Although, you can imagine some kind of high-concept art cookbook of only deadly recipes â€” itâ€™s probably been done.)
But what about otherÂ health concerns? I usuallyÂ appreciate Cookâ€™s editorial restraint on questions of health, whereÂ the glossy food magazines are all too readyÂ to hype up the latest trend:Â superfoods, paleo, whatever. The recipesÂ in Cookâ€™s do seem healthy in that they use real, basic ingredients, but the magazine stays away from claims that a dish or an ingredient will be good for you.
But what about when an ingredient will be very, very bad for you? I still appreciate the information on Jerusalem artichokes provided by Cookâ€™s â€” as I said, itâ€™s a vegetable Iâ€™d long wondered about. But is it too much to ask for just a brief sentence in this admittedly short ingredient note, warning that the tubers were chock full of indigestible starch that may lead to gastrointestinal discomfort? Maybe a suggestionÂ only to eat a small amount? Then at least I wouldâ€™ve known to look into the issue before deciding whether or not to proceed with the recipe.
Part of the problem is the vegetableâ€™s unfamiliarity; withÂ a recipe for, say, a big pot of beans, I know what Iâ€™m getting into.
Weâ€™ll have to wait another month to see if Cookâ€™s publishes a correction, addendum or retraction in the Mayâ€“June issue. ButÂ until then, if youâ€™re desperate for a new vegetable in your life, and Cookâ€™s has never steered you wrong before, well â€” youâ€™ve been warned.
Hereâ€™s the sunchoke display at our grocery store:
Lots of great information there, but missing the most important information of all. Caveat emptor.