I’ve noticed a distinct trend in my occasional forays into vegetable gardening: if it’s easy to grow and doesn’t get eaten by caterpillars, you can guarantee it is monstrous to prepare (I’m looking at you, broadbeans).
It must be confessed that Jerusalem artichokes (also known as sunchokes) do partake somewhat of this tendency. But they have a lot going for them, too.
To start with, Jerusalem artichokes are very easy to grow. You stick one in the ground in winter, ignore it completely, and up it comes in spring, generally after you’ve given up all hope. At this point, you may mistake it for a weed and pull half of it up, but that’s OK, because it takes more than that to kill the valiant Jerusalem artichoke. (I can sense all the experienced gardeners among you groaning at the implications of this. For the less experienced gardener, allow me to share this hard-earned piece of wisdom: if a plant is easy to grow and virtually un-killable, it is already more than half-way to being a weed….)
Anyway, soon after the unfortunate weeding incident, you will realise that you have a whole row of these incredibly fast-growing, triffid-like plants, and conclude that they are, in fact, the tubers you planted months ago and had assumed dead and rotted by now. (Only in your dreams. These tubers are very, very hardy, and if you manage to miss any when you dig up the plants later in the year, they will come back again next year, and bring friends)
Then they will eat your beetroots and your carrots and anything else you were foolish enough to plant near them, and you will wonder if they were such a good idea after all. Although I have been told that Jerusalem artichokes are excellent soil conditioners, assuming you can ever clear the area sufficiently for anything else to be planted there!
But they grow – you can almost see them growing, in fact – all through the late spring and summer and early autumn, and while it’s rather scary it’s also pretty cool, especially when you suddenly look out into the garden one morning and see that it is full of these 2-3 metre tall sunflowers. (If you were wondering about the Jerusalem connection, incidentally, this is it: girasole is the Italian word for sunflower, but to the Anglophone it sounds a lot like the word ‘Jerusalem’.) Awesome, in many senses of the world.
And after the flowers die off and the tops die back, it’s time to dig the plants up and see what delightful bounty you have before you – and bounty you certainly do have, because each plant produces several kilos of tubers. (Jerusalem artichokes are not strictly a root vegetable, but the edible bits are the tubers, found underground and frequently far further away from the plant than you might have expected) Which is the point at which you realise you don’t actually have all that many recipes that use Jerusalem artichokes.
Also, even if you do have recipes, peeling them is going to be a right pain in the neck, because they look a lot like their relative, ginger – all knobbly and bumpy.
But this is where we come to another excellent thing Jerusalem artichokes – they are very good for you. Jerusalem artichokes are often recommended as a good potato substitute for people with diabetes, because they don’t raise blood sugar. On the other hand, the way in which they don’t raise blood sugar is by containing a form of sugar that is not absorbed but which does encourage enthusiastic and good gut flora. And as I’m sure you can imagine, this occasionally has anti-social side-effects in people whose systems are not used to such festivities. (Though par-boiling them before cooking can help with this.)
Have I put you off completely? I hope not, because the most important thing you need to know about Jerusalem artichokes is that they taste very good indeed, and their texture is extraordinary – if you cook them and then puree them completely plain, they are as soft and creamy (almost silky) as if you had added copious quantities of milk and butter. I really can’t do justice to their texture in words, but it is really luscious. Their flavour is a little like potato, a little tangy, a little mineral, maybe a little nutty – difficult to describe. Allegedly, they taste like artichokes, but I don’t see the resemblance, myself. They are more strongly flavoured than potato and can get away without any adornment beyond a smidgeon of salt and pepper.
So how do you cook them? Well, anything you can do to a potato, you can do to a Jerusalem artichoke. They cook in about half the time of a potato, though it must be said that they make up for the reduced cooking time by being truly infuriating to peel. Frankly, if you don’t need them in chunks or slices, it’s easiest to roast or boil them without peeling them, and then pass them through a sieve to make a puree – this is a bit fiddly, but nowhere near as bad as it sounds, and much faster than peeling them before cooking. Add stock, and you have a soup! You can, however, eat them with their skins on, so long as they are well scrubbed. If you’ve just pulled them out of the ground, you’ll probably need two consecutive buckets of water to get the mud off (and then pour the water and mud back into the garden, please!), and overnight soaking is not at all a bad idea. If you must peel them while they are raw (and don’t say I didn’t warn you about this), I’d recommend cutting each of the bumps off to peel separately, leaving you with a much more manageable (and already peeled) shape in the middle.
My favourite thing to do with Jerusalem artichokes is cut them into lopsided chunks (skin on) and roast them with a little olive oil, salt, pepper, garlic, rosemary and lemon juice. Just lovely with a roast or on their own. I’ve also made them into a gratin with porcini mushrooms, garlic, cream and parmesan cheese. Mmm… I haven’t tried sautéeing them yet, and I don’t do deep-frying, but I’m told that both these techniques work just fine; my sources also tell me that they can be eaten raw, though I am less convinced about this. I’ve seen some lovely looking recipes for Jerusalem artichoke ‘potato’ cakes, which sound fabulous. And I believe I already told you how beautifully they mash.
If you’ve never tasted them, they are definitely worth a try. They are in season in Autumn to Winter, though a bit difficult to find at the supermarket. The best strategy is to find a friend who grows them, since it is almost impossible to grow a small number, and there are only so many times a week one can eat Jerusalem artichokes, no matter how good they are.
They do taste wonderful, though.