Wednesday, February 3, 2010

February: Jerusalem Artichokes

The Jerusalem Artichoke is the ugly step sister in the world of root vegetables. Even the lowly parsnip is more appealing-looking, and maybe this accounts for its almost complete anonymity. No one seems to know what it is or what to do with it. And yet, here is an indigenous vegetable, native to our area, that is easily grown in any garden, and quite tasty if prepared with imagination.

First, let’s dispense with the myths. The Jerusalem Artichoke is neither an artichoke nor from the Holy Land. It is a member of the sunflower family, and its stems and flowers are very much like small sunflowers. There are several theories about the “Jerusalem” part; the one I like is that it’s a corruption of the Italian for sunflower: “girasole.” Samuel de Champlain, the early explorer of much of eastern Canada, sent samples back to France and said they tasted like artichokes, so maybe we have him to thank for the mistaken “artichoke” part of the name. Current practice is to call the plant “Sunchoke” in order to get away from the Jerusalem/sunflower misnomer, and one promoter tried to popularize the name “Canadian potato” without any success.

It is the root or tuber that is cultivated, and it grows vigorously. If left alone, it will quickly spread and take over your whole garden. The root is gnarly and irregular in shape, usually around 10 cm long, and light brown. Sunchokes (let’s call them that from now on) are not too common in grocery stores, unfortunately, but from time to time they will appear in the produce section. The tuber is rich in fructose because, like other members of its family, it produces inulin rather than starch and is used in the production of sugar, thanks to its high crop yields and ease of cultivation.

Unfortunately, the Sunchoke has a strike against it as a table vegetable: many people don’t digest inulin very well, and this leads to a… um… indelicate after-effect. In the words of Gerard’s Herbal (1661) quoting planter John Goodyer, “which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men." OK, this is over the top, but there is no question that in some people, the Sunchoke has the same effect that beans are famous for. Enough said on that subject.

Sunchokes can be eaten raw or cooked, but require a delicate hand in cooking; they cook much faster than potatoes and can become mushy quite quickly. Steaming is a better option than boiling. Raw, they may be chopped or shredded and used in salads as a tasty and unusual addition. Young, freshly harvested ones are best for this purpose, as they are more tender and have a finer texture. Like potatoes and apples, Sunchokes will darken with exposure to air, so once they are cut, mixing them with a little lemon juice will keep them from discolouring.

Most often, Sunchokes are used as an interesting alternative to potatoes or parsnips in virtually any recipe. There are many recipes for Sunchoke and leek soup, Sunchoke and potato gratin, and Sunchoke chowder. I have put them in the roasting pan to bake alongside roast beef, and they absorb some of the beef dripping flavour… a very nice side dish served whole on the plate with sweet potatoes. Just don’t overcook them: about half the time that potatoes would take is enough to make the Sunchokes firm but tender.

The Pelham Slow Food Convivium has its own page on the Slow Food Canada website, where events and activities are announced and reviewed .

To contact Renée Girard, the leader of the Pelham Convivium regarding membership, activities, or other information, write to .