Not All Artichokes Have Heart…
There they were, sitting in an apple basket, ignored. People looked at the funny, knobby tubers, wondering what they were. “Jerusalem artichokes”, said the farmer.
My ears perked up.
I had read about Jerusalem artichokes in various magazines and cookbooks, but didn’t know you could find them here. But there they were, neglected, waiting for someone like me to pick them up, buy them, and take them home. *
Jersualem artichokes, or sunchokes are a tuber that grows at the roots of a flower plant related to sunflowers (hence it’s italian name, girasole). According to historians, they were a source of nourishment for many of North America’s Native Americans here on the east coast. They were even brought back to France by Samuel de Champlain, having found them in Cape Cod. It came to be known as the “Canada” or “French” potato. The French soon came to call it a topinambour (which also happens to be another term for an uneducated individual), due to its apparent lack of refinement. In fact, the 17th century botanist, John Goodyer once commented that, “[...]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”. The reason for this is that the tubers aren’t full of starch, like a potato, but inulin. This complex carbohydrate is not always easily digested, in the same way that certain beans aren’t well digested, leaving you and your fellow diners thinking back on that lovely quote. (Note: I once fed them to my entire family at Christmas. Thankfully, we are close and loving family, and took it all in good fun)
Despite its fatefully unflattering and flatulent reputation, Jerusalem artichokes have become increasingly easy to find in farmer’s markets and on restaurant menus. Heck, even New York Magazine mentioned them in a recent article discussing the popularity of vegetables on restaurant menus. Raw, its flavour is similar to raw potato or jicama, with a texture similar to water chestnuts. Cooked, it tastes vaguely of sunflowers, nutty and wonderful. I prefer them sliced and roasted, or cut – even grated- into thin strips and served in a salad, raw. They can even be used to make a spirit in Germany, called “Topinambour” or “Topi”.
Here’s a quick and easy recipe for serving them. They go great as a side dish with grilled or roasted meat
1 pound jerusalem artichokes
3 tbsp oil, preferably olive oil, or roasted peanut oil
1 small onion
Herbs such as sage, thyme, rosemary, about 2 finely chopped tsp of each.
salt and pepper to taste.
Preheat your oven to 450.
Take out a large cookie sheet. **
Scrub the chokes thoroughly to remove any stray bits of dirt. Slice into thin and even segments. Keeping them roughly the same size will ensure that they will all cook at the same time.
Place them in a bowl and add the oil as well as the herbs, stirring to coat them evenly. Season with salt and pepper.
Distribute the Jerusalem artichokes on your cookie sheet, paying attention to lay them out evenly, so that none of them are covering one another. This is to ensure that they don’t end up steaming, rather than roasting.
Put cookie sheet in oven, leaving them in for 25-30 minutes until golden brown, turning them over halfway to ensure even roasting.
For an extra touch, grate some old parmesan or gouda on top before serving.
Notes: *In Halifax, you can find a few farmers who sell Jerusalem artichokes. At the Seaport Market, Alex Denicola sells lovely specimens at a great price.
** Not all cookie sheets are made the same. When you really want to carmelise whatever you are roasting, the darker the colour of the sheet, the better it is. Also, a good tip is to pre-heat your cookie sheet as well, by leaving it to warm up in the oven as it preheats.