Cook’s Illustrated, responsible food writing, and the ‘fartichoke’

Photo by Isabelle Boucher and used under Creative Commons license

Intriguing, right?
Photo by Isabelle Boucher and used under Creative Commons license

It was all born out of desperation.

It’s March, the dead time. As I seem to write on this blog every spring, we’ve reached the point in the year where we’re tired of eating the heavy winter dishes, but there’s really nothing fresh yet to speak of. It’s warmer, so we haven’t been craving a hearty stew full of meat and winter vegetables. Unfortunately, asparagus and fresh radishes – hell, even ramps – are still weeks away. I’d been complaining to everyone about being stuck in a culinary rut. I needed a change – any change.

Enter the Jerusalem artichoke. I’d long been intrigued by these homely 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 didn’t know much about them – and certainly not how to cook them. So I was left to look, to wonder, but not to eat.

That all changed when the March—April 2016 issue of Cook’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 “Jerusalem Artichokes: Another Tasty Tuber” with a little background on the vegetable, and, more importantly, instructions for how to cook the things. Armed with new confidence, I bought a pound.

The preparation suggested by Cook’s was simple enough: peel the ’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 – I think I’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 with 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, I’ll spare you the details, but let’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 ’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 I’d handled it properly when raw. There was only one x-factor, and that was the artichokes. I googled “jerusalem artichoke digestion.”

And that’s when I first saw the term “fartichoke.”

As it turns out, the Jerusalem artichoke is 76% inulin, a 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.

Tasty tuber? Sure, I guess. But what else?

Tasty tuber? Sure, I guess. But what else?

This got me thinking about the ethics of recipe-writing. Didn’t Cook’s Illustrated have a duty to warn me about the hazards I was about to visit on myself and my family?

Generally, I think about a recipe-writer’s responsibilities with questions like, “Do the instructions work?” and, “Does the dish taste good?”

But there are assumptions more fundamental than that. For example, that a recipe isn’t poisonous – that it won’t kill those who eat it. (Although, you can imagine some kind of high-concept art cookbook of only deadly recipes – it’s probably been done.)

But what about other health concerns? I usually appreciate Cook’s editorial restraint on questions of health, where the glossy food magazines are all too ready to hype up the latest trend: superfoods, paleo, whatever. The recipes in Cook’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 Cook’s – as I said, it’s a vegetable I’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 suggestion only to eat a small amount? Then at least I would’ve known to look into the issue before deciding whether or not to proceed with the recipe.

Part of the problem is the vegetable’s unfamiliarity; with a recipe for, say, a big pot of beans, I know what I’m getting into.

We’ll have to wait another month to see if Cook’s publishes a correction, addendum or retraction in the May—June issue. But until then, if you’re desperate for a new vegetable in your life, and Cook’s has never steered you wrong before, well – you’ve been warned.


Here’s the sunchoke display at our grocery store:


Lots of great information there, but missing the most important information of all. Caveat emptor.


Sorry New York Times, grape salad is bullshit

photo of bowl of green grapes covered in sour cream with caramelized brown sugar and pecans

Grapes, sour cream and brown sugar – how can you go wrong?

Few things raise Minnesotans’ collective glee quite like when our frosty state earns mention in the New York Times – particularly when America’s paper of record gets Minnesota very, very wrong. Remember “Mort’s”?

And so we greeted with a good deal of mock outrage and secret merriment the Times’ strange assertion, in an article about the Thanksgiving dishes that best evoked each of the 50 states (plus D.C. and Puerto Rico!), that Minnesota was best represented by a concoction of green grapes, sour cream and sugar. (Never mind that they based this claim solely on the testimony of a woman identified by the distinctly un-Minnesotan title of “heiress.”)

Condemnation was swift as it was harsh. Minnesotans had never even heard of grape salad, let alone made it part of they holiday traditions. What were they thinking? How could they give our beloved wild rice to, ugh, Wisconsin?? Those smug New Yorkers really don’t have a clue.

But I, being an adoptive rather than native Minnesotan, like to think I keep a more open mind about these things. At least some MinnPost commenters claimed a history for the dish in the state, and, history aside, maybe it was just a good recipe. I had to try it. And wouldn’t it have been delicious if this year’s ironic grape salads became next year’s – and many years’ to come – beloved tradition?

Well, safe to say there’s no danger of that happening. I made grape salad this year, and let me tell you: it is not good. You know how some really simple recipes end up greater than the sum of their parts? Grape salad is less. The consensus at the table was we’d have been better off with a bowl of plain grapes and a separate bowl of sour cream.

It’s not helped by its appearance, either: the heat of the broiler melts the sour cream coating the grapes just enough to give the impression of – moldy grapes. Yum.

So no, New York Times, grape salad is not Minnesotan. But what’s worse, it’s not even very good.

photo of a thanksgiving plate

Grape salad is far and away the worst thing on this plate.

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Asparagus, again

Asparagus and steakWe got a little surprise at the  Midtown Farmers Market yesterday. Only the second week in May, but Peter and Carmen had a few small bundles of asparagus. We almost missed them – it pays to make a couple of passes through the market.

The first asparagus of the year is always a cause for celebration. And simple treatment: I sautéed these spears briefly in olive oil and sprinkled them with sea salt. Nothing else needed.


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Spring time, spring rolls

Safe to say stew season is behind us. Now it’s time for fresh.


None of this stuff is really growing in Minnesota yet in spring – the grass isn’t even growing yet. Nevertheless, the craving for raw vegetables is there and international shipping provides.


Martha pointed out that as far as assemble-at-the-table meals go, spring rolls beat tacos because you can eat so many more of them before you feel full.


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Have you ever been out walking in the snow?

Fresh snow flakes clustered in tree bark Fresh snow on my glove Fresh snow on a fire hydrant Fresh snow on barkSnowy Minneapolis bike commute


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