Photo ©Evie Saffron Strands
Originating in North America, the Jerusalem Artichoke arrived in Europe in the early 1600s. First seen by French explorers who saw them being grown by Native Americans at Nausett Harbour, Cape Cod, it’s a vegetable highly valued, particularly in France, ever since. Jerusalem Artichoke is a misnomer; it’s neither an artichoke, nor anything to do with Jerusalem. Actually a perennial member of the sunflower family, they are also known as ‘Sunchoke’ or ‘Sunroot’ in North America. It’s the tubers, sometimes knobbly, sometimes smooth-skinned, that are eaten. The name Jerusalem Artichoke may have come from the word Girasol, meaning to turn to face the sun (as sunflower heads do), and from some one-time perceived similarity in flavour and texture to an artichoke heart.
Long, slow cooking allows most of their carbohydrates to convert to digestible fructose. Note, that’s most, not all. Some people find them rather gas-making and, if you eat a lot, they can cause abdominal discomfort. They are however, good for your gut, despite this side-effect. Our resident colony of beneficial bacteria feed happily on them. As Nigel Slater says, “Wind is almost inevitable. Just go with it.”
Crunchy, sweet and nutty in their raw state, they collapse into a soft, earthy, caramel sweetness after long, slow cooking. Peeling or not is generally down to personal preference, but simply washing them is best if you’re not looking for mushiness. If you do peel them, rub the tubers with lemon juice or drop them into acidulated water to stop discolouration. Jerusalem Artichokes love lemon, butter and cream. The addition of almonds or hazelnuts is good for texture. They make a great soup enriched with cream; add a few to a tray of roast vegetables; Jane Grigson would have you cook the tubers, peel, slice and arrange in a dish, top with prawns and a herby vinaigrette; Nigel Slater tempts with his suggestion to steam until almost tender then fry in duck fat with thyme and bay until crisp, golden and tender; finely sliced and fried they make for an addictive bowl of crisps.
Best of all ‘stove’ them – a combination of frying and steaming that brings out the best in tubers. Cover the base of a pan with olive oil and add a knob of butter and bring to a sizzle. Add whole, or halved, unpeeled artichokes in a single layer and a couple of unpeeled garlic cloves. Add salt and pepper. Partially cover the pan and cook for 5 minutes, turn and cook for 5 minutes more. Remove the cover completely and cook for a further 10 minutes or so, turning occasionally, until they are golden brown and look a little crumpled.
Jerusalem Artichokes come through our doors in late autumn. They grow happily throughout winter and even now, as we tentatively approach spring, they are still available and very good. Knobbly or smooth, dusty brown or purple-streaked, look out for them in these final weeks of their season.