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JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE (sunchoke)
The Jerusalem artichoke is a North American native plant, not an artichoke
but a sunflower -- Helianthus tuberosus. And it has no connection to Jerusalem.
This tuberous-rooted sunflower was called artichoke because the flavor and
texture of the tuber's flesh was judged similar to that of the heart of
the globe artichoke. |
The Jerusalem part of the name could be an English corruption of the plant's Italian name Girasole which, like the French Tournesol, refers to the flower's supposed habit of turning to face the sun. Though neither of these explanations reflects certain truth the name, however unfitting, remains.
The plants are like giant sunflowers, stretching six to eight feet high. Small, yellow, sunflower-like blossoms appear only after a long, hot summer. The tubers range in size from a few inches across to the size of a large fist with knobby protusions. There are white and purple-skinned varieties, both with white flesh. I've found the white-skinned tubers to be smoother and easier to use than the purple.
Jerusalem artichokes are like a starchless potato. Their sweet, delicate flavor can be attributed to the tubers' storage of inulin (note, not insulin), a starch-like substance consisting of fructose molecules.
Not everyone is as enamored of the Jerusalem artichoke as I am. Some find the taste insipid, the knobby tubers awkward to clean, the plants too large or invasive. In some quarters Jerusalem artichoke tubers are known authors of legendary flatulence. John Gerard's Herball, first published in 1597, concludes: "In my judgment, which way soever they be drest and eaten, they are a meat more fit for swine, than men."
Jerusalem artichoke plant
Jerusalem artichoke tubers (sunchokes)
That Gerard specifies pigs as appropriate consumers of the Jerusalem artichoke is interesting in light of present-day experiments using the tubers as animal feed, specifically on pig farms where incorporating Jerusalem artichokes into the feed apparently improves the finished quality of the pork and reduces the offensive odor of the animals' excrement -- a worthy endeavour!
Jerusalem artichokes were introduced to Europe by the French, who brought them from Canada as Battatas de Canada -- Canadian Potatoes. In California the tubers are known as sunchokes. It is by this name they are usually sold in the produce section of food stores.
Once in the ground, Jerusalem artichokes practically raise themselves. Young plants need only an initial weeding. As they develop, the plants' towering height and abundant foliage shade out weeds. They grow even in the poorest soils.
The main consideration when planting Jerusalem artichokes is to choose a site that is out of the way or along a side of the garden where the tall plants won't shade other plantings and where they can be kept from spreading. I keep my Jerusalem artichoke planting along a far edge of the main vegetable plot.
In March I dig up what is left from the winterlong harvesting of the tubers, replenish the soil sparingly with compost, and replant the smallest tubers a few inches deep and 12 inches apart. As with potatoes, some tubers are inevitably missed in the digging and more plants will sprout than were deliberately replanted. But young unwanted plants are easily pulled up. All a Jerusalem artichoke planting needs through the summer is the occasional watering in dry weather. The plants are superhardy and need no winter cover or care.
It saves a lot of trouble to keep Jerusalem artichokes in one permanent site. Scatttered around the garden, they easily become a nuisance. I've had thickets of the plants spring up where I've buried tuber peelings along with other kitchen vegetable wastes. This is a plant that really wants to grow.
Harvest and Use
Harvested before frost, Jerusalem artichokes have the flavor of partially cooked corn starch. It's only after cold weather has arrived that the tubers take on their characteristic sweet taste and crisp, juicy texture. The flavor is delicate, with a hint of mild radish and coconut.
When frost has wilted the foliage cut the stalks down leaving about 12 inches above ground. To gather the tubers I simply grasp one of the stalks, pull it up, pick up the unearthed tubers and root around for others produced from the same plant. I usually bring in enough tubers at a time to last a week or two. They keep well refrigerated in a plastic bag.
Though I use Jerusalem artichokes cut into slices or sticks in stir-fry dishes through the winter, my favorite way of eating the tubers is raw. Sliced and savored in an unadorned state, the tubers' fine, sweet flavor and tender crunch are at their best.
The tubers are delicious steamed not quite tender then sliced and sauteed golden brown in butter and oil. Serve the slices topped with fresh chopped herbs. An old favorite way to prepare the tubers is to slice and cook them tender in very little water. Then grate cheddar cheese over the slices and recover the pot until the cheese melts to make a tasty sauce. Or, make a tangy white sauce for cooked artichoke tubers with butter, flour, milk or cream, and pressed garlic or shallot.
See other Summer in the Garden features:
Delphinium | June Garden | Garden Structures | June Tasks
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