Gardening Articles: Health :: Cooking

Jerusalem Artichokes

by Lucy Beckstead

The first time I saw the odd little tubers labeled "Jerusalem Artichoke," they were shrink-wrapped in plastic next to the fennel bulbs in my supermarket. I bought them out of curiosity, liked their taste, and saved two or three to plant. A few years later I was harvesting enough tubers to feed the whole neighborhood.

These undemanding perennial sunflowers will grow in nearly any climate and are insect- and disease-free. They send up multiple stalks, six to 12 feet tall, and form an attractive screen. The cheery blossoms make great cut flowers. Bloom starts in late summer, though under some conditions (not enough light or early frost), some varieties may bloom sparsely or not at all.

In the fall, you'll enjoy an abundance of nutritious low-calorie tubers with an unusual nutty flavor. A 15-foot row (1 1/2 to two pounds of seed tubers) will produce at least a half-bushel of tubers. A single serving (100 grams or roughly two large tubers) delivers 2.3 grams of protein, 16.7 grams of carbohydrate and a rich supply of minerals (phosphorus, iron and calcium), not to mention 20 I.U. of vitamin A.

And sunroots are good eating! Raw, they are crunchy, with a slightly sweet flavor. You can cook them in casseroles or stews. Or they can be creamed, pureed for soup, curried or simply mashed, fried or baked like potatoes. Thinly sliced, they're like water chestnuts in stir-fry dishes. And they make a satisfying salad diced with onion, celery and a bit of cucumber.

The tubers store well through the winter in a refrigerator or root cellar. I've kept them that way from March to September. Or, you can leave them right in the ground and harvest until they start to sprout in spring. The longer I've grown and researched this plant, the more I've wondered: Why haven't all gardeners discovered this great vegetable?

Maybe the name has something to do with it. Jerusalem artichokes certainly don't look like artichokes, and they aren't related at all. "Sunchokes" isn't much better. A more appropriate name that seems to be catching on is "sunroot." This is an accurate description, for the plant, Helianthus tuberosus, is a species of sunflower that spreads by rhizomes bearing delicious fleshy tubers at their tips. These very hardy plants originally grew in a wide belt stretching from Canada south through the middle of the U.S. to the frost-free line.

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