3/15/11

Perfect Winter Harvest

Have you ever heard of Jerusalem Artichokes? Perhaps you've seen them as "sunchokes," sold in the supermarket produce section? I'm a big fan of these edible plants, whose roots are harvested in winter months and can be used, raw or cooked, in a variety of recipes.

The Jerusalem Artichokes are not artichokes and do not come from Jerusalem - various theories exist for how they were named. They the swollen roots, called tubers, of "Helianthus tuberoses," a perennial flowering plant of the sunflower/aster family, which often grow in the wild. They look a lot like ginger roots. During the warm months, these tubers supply the nutrients for the growth of tall stiff leafy stalks, 7 feet or taller, which are topped with a profusion of 3" yellow daisy-type flowers in the fall. As the flowers fade and the stalks and leaves die back, the plant's energies go back into the roots, and the tubers begin to grow again.

AS A FOOD:
Jerusalem Artichoke tubers are dug from November thru early March here in Tennessee, just harvesting as many as you want for immediate use, and leaving the rest in the ground for subsequent harvests. I'll be honest - these are not for those of you who hate to get your hands dirty… literally and figuratively. If you've ever dug and cleaned fresh potatoes, you know there is some work involved. Even though they can be used like potatoes, I wouldn't attempt to prepare a big casserole of Jerusalem Artichokes for a crowd... too much work. But as an addition to other foods, they are perfect.

To prepare for eating, the harvested Jerusalem Artichoke roots are washed and scrubbed to remove the dirt, like other root crops. The skin is golden, and the inside is white. The thin skin can be peeled with a vegetable peeler, but it sort of scrubs off while cleaning. I prefer to hose the tubers off after digging, soak briefly in a bowl of water to loosen the remaining dirt, then scrub with a vegetable brush (the kind like a fingernail scrubbing brush).

The tubers can be:
Freshly dug tubers, not yet washed.
  • Eaten raw - with a texture and crunch similar to water chestnuts; added to salads and dips
  • Cooked - prepared in many ways as you would use potatoes (baked, boiled, stewed, fried, etc.)
  • Sliced - for quick stir-fry type cooking
  • Dehydrated
  • Dried and ground into flour
  • Pickled
Loose soil hosed off.
Scrubbed, ready to cut up and add to a beef stew.
They have a slight sweetness, particularly if harvested late in their season, but otherwise don't have a strong flavor. When using them raw, air will darken them just as with apple slices, so cut when ready to use, or cut and dip them in water with a small amount lemon juice, vinegar, or some other acid added. If you are storing the tubers, it is best to wash them, then place in them a zip bag in the refrigerator; the moisture helps keep them fresh. Use within a week. They cannot be stored like potatoes or they will dry up and shrivel.

USING THEM IN RECIPES
I have used raw Jerusalem Artichokes chopped and stirred into chicken salad for a slight crunch, the same as celery would add. I also slice them thin to mix in a garden salad. Chopped pieces make a good addition to onion dip too. When cooking the tubers, added acid can strengthen the texture, so cut when ready to add to the cooked recipe rather than cutting early and soaking in lemon juice, as when used raw. I have cooked them in a beef stew, cutting into 1" pieces, and adding to a crock pot with onions, carrots, mushrooms, beef and herbs. After hours of cooking, they deliciously absorb the stew flavors. I've also sliced Jerusalem Artichokes and sauteed with onions and kale, as a yummy side dish, and I've used them to make a pureed cheese soup, much like you'd use potatoes. Experiment!

Even if they weren't so good, the fact that Jerusalem Artichokes can be harvested continuously all winter, when so little else is growing in the garden, makes them a valuable food source. In an emergency, when you can't get to the store for produce, they are readily available for your immediate harvesting.

DIABETIC ALTERNATIVE:
After harvesting, the Jerusalem Artichoke's storage carbohydrate is inulin, which is converted to fructose in the digestive tract, as compared with the storage carbohydrate of potatoes - starch, which is converted to glucose in the gut. Thus Jerusalem Artichokes are a better tolerated choice for diabetics.

PLANTING, GROWING & HARVESTING:
My location in Zone 7 is about as far south as Jerusalem Artichokes grow, needing about 125 frost-free days. They are not particularly happy in our slow-draining Tennessee clay soil, so augment the planting bed to improve drainage. I found my three-year old planting bed had spread toward a rock-filled drainage ditch beside the bed, where the drainage was better. Planting in spring is best, and they like slightly alkaline soil and sunshine. Plant pieces of tubers at least 2 ounces, 4-5 inches deep, about 12 inches apart. Chose a location where very tall plants will look nice, and plant them where they can thrive and spread, year after year. Even if you try to dig all the roots, you will have a hard time eliminating this vigorous crop. Mine sometimes get too tall by midsummer and wind will blow the stalks over, so I cut them down a few feet, sacrificing some of the flowering in later months.
 
Digging tubers in late winter, to share with others for planting.
Dig the tubers beginning in fall, after the plant has died back, and after the first frost. Insert a tined garden fork into the soil under the dried stem, loosening the soil. You'll see the golden tubers scattered amongst the dirt, all at about the same depth. Pieces will vary from knobby to round, 1-1/2" to 4", and will not have any roots attached to them, so just pull them out of the dirt. In late winter, you'll know it's time to stop harvesting when you see one end of each tuber has started growing a shoot, preparing for the new season's growth.