Spring has definitely settled in here in the foothills of the Sredna Gora Mountains, and we can feel the first waves of summer building on the breeze.  Mornings are cool, but warming up every day, and I am turning on the radiators less and less frequently at night.  Markets are bursting into color – in the past few months we have gone from the browns and whites of winter vegetables, to the joyful greens of lettuces and mint, and now we’re starting to pull into the proud hues of summer fruits.  Strawberries are on their way out, but cherries have come in like mad this week, for about $2.50 per kilo, and soon we’ll see other stone fruits, too – peaches and nectarines will mark the height of summer, and they’ll share market tables with eggplants, zucchini, and the best tomatoes this side of the Mediterranean.

Another American, Beth, will come to replace me at the school here, and she came this week to check things out.  She admitted she wasn’t much in the kitchen, and so I tried to give her only basic introductions to cooking in Bulgaria, but I found myself talking at length about preparations and availability and my experiences with food here.  Living in a place where fresh food is cheap has taught me a tremendous amount about using what is around, and has given me plenty of opportunities to understand many differences between vegetables at different stages of their growth.  Sometimes it’s been frustrating – there’s not much difference paid between varieties of onion, for example, so sometimes you get sweet red onions, sometimes you get fiery white onions, and sometimes you get huge shallots – but the surprises that show up at the markets in Sofia more than make up for it.

Yesterday I took Beth to one of my favorite markets, and by far the biggest, Zhenski Pazar.  There are hundreds of stalls of food, most of it local or coming from Greece or Turkey, but there are also a few people scattered around the edges selling a small box of whatever it is they’ve grown in their gardens or foraged that week, mostly herbs or unusual greens.  We were walking through late in the day, around 4:30, and I stopped when I saw a bag of Jerusalem artichokes – also called sunchokes – on the ground in front of an old woman who was very eager to get rid of them. 

“Jerusalem artichokes!” she said.  “2 leva!”  (About $1.50.)
“2 leva per piece?” I asked, only slightly incredulously.
“No, honey, 2 leva per bagful.”

And before I could say golly gee whiz, she’d wrapped up about five pounds of these little rhizomes and put them in my arms.  I gave her 4 leva.  How much do these things cost at Whole Foods, anyway?

Beth left this morning to go finish out her homestay in the southwestern part of the country, and I gave her half of the bounty to give to her host family.  This still left me with almost a kilo of a food that remained a little intimidating – I’d only ever eaten it once, and that was just by itself, to see what it tasted like.  A few minutes of research told me that I can do almost anything with these that I can do with potatoes.  It’s a root vegetable, is all.  Roast it, toast it, mash it, eat it. 

We’ll start with a soup.  Way basic, so make sure all of your ingredients are good quality.  Lends itself to a plethora of variations – just make sure not to overpower the flavor of the artichokes, which is on the delicate side.  I meant to make a roux at the beginning with some chickpea flour, but I forgot – I bet that would add a great subtle earthy flavor, though.  This tastes like a fresher version of a cold potato soup.  Maybe I’ll call it “chokeychoisse”?

…maybe not.

                                

Chilled Jerusalem Artichoke Soup
serves 4

1 tablespoon sunflower oil
1 tablespoon butter
white and light green parts of 3 scallions, chopped
1 pound (500 grams) Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed and cut in large dice
2-3 cups vegetable broth
ground black pepper to taste
up to 2 cups whole milk
salt to taste
toasted walnuts or sunflower seeds, to garnish

Heat oil and melt butter in a soup pot over medium heat.  Add scallions and cook until softened but not browned, 2-3 minutes.  Add Jerusalem artichokes and vegetable broth to cover; throw in a few grinds of black pepper.  Bring to a boil, then drop the heat and simmer just until the artichokes are cooked, 10-15 minutes.  Remove from heat and strain, keeping the broth.  Put artichokes in a blender with about half of the broth and a cup of milk.  Buzz it up and add more milk as necessary to reach your desired consistency.  Taste and season as necessary, then chill for at least a couple of hours.  Garnish with walnuts or sunflower seeds and the sliced green parts of the scallion you cut up for the soup.

Yes, I said this feeds four people – these little rhizomes are filling.  But if you’re making this as a main course, you should probably double the recipe.  This would be nice, too, with a bit of tomato thrown in at the end to give a rosy blush.  A drizzle of flavored oil, chive blossoms, carrot fritters on the side, use yogurt for half the milk… any other ideas?  Go crazy.

For more information on Jerusalem artichokes, which are also called sunchokes and which have absolutely nothing to do with the artichokes you may be thinking about, check out this article.

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