Culinary Anthropologist

Jerusalem artichokes

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Jerusalem artichokes are neither artichokes nor from Jerusalem.  It seems their name is a corruption of ‘girasole’, Italian for sunflower, as the plant is indeed a relative, complete with bright yellow flowers and head-turning properties.  They originated in North America and first arrived in the UK in 1617, via France.  Their flavour is distinctly artichokey, which probably explains the first half of their name.  In the United States now they’re called ‘sunchokes’, which, as much as I hate invented conjoined abbreviations, is probably a more sensible name.

In fact they’re members of the lettuce family, along with salsify, and only distant cousins of the artichoke.  I find them utterly delicious – roasted or fried so caramelised on the inside and soft in the centre, baked in a creamy gratin, puréed smooth in a soup, or raw in a salad.  And they’re incredibly easy to grow – prolific, disease and frost resistant, and harvestable for several months.  You’d think we’d all be eating Jerusalem artichokes all winter long.  But we’re not because, a) their knobbly shape makes them a nightmare to peel, and b) they cause not inconsiderable flatulence…

I’d never really believed the wind thing.  That is, until I started testing recipes in earnest to produce this missive…  So now I’d agree with Guy Watson of Riverford Farm in Devon when he says their “effect is more thunderous than malodorous”.  John Goodyer, the first to plant Jerusalem artichokes in England, didn’t like eating them himself: “which way so ever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented.” They’re not that bad, honestly.  Goodyer must have eaten a tonne of them.

To reduce their effects, it is said that you should cook them with bay leaves, or eat them with fennel.  All I can say to that is that the one bay leaf in this recipe doesn’t seem to be enough.  As with most farty food, we should actually be grateful.  For the little ‘friendly bacteria’ in our guts are producing the carbon dioxide and other gases by doing us a favour: they’re digesting the fructose chains in Jerusalem artichokes that we can’t.  

Try to choose smooth specimens, to avoid wastage when peeling.  However peeling is not always strictly necessary, provided you can scrub them clean enough.  Leaving the skin on will help them keep their shape during roasting or frying.  Note that peeled and cut Jerusalem artichoke will discolour in the air, so if preparing them in advance, even by a few minutes, keep in water acidulated with a dash of lemon juice or white wine vinegar, as you would trimmed artichokes.  

Apparently, if you cook Jerusalem artichokes at a very low temperature for a very, very long time the flesh candies itself, turning into a sweet translucent brown jelly, like aspic.  This is definitely something I need to try…

You can find two delicious Jerusalem artichoke soup recipes here

‘Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book’, J Grigson, 1978
‘Riverford Farm Cook Book’, G Watson & J Baxter, 2008
‘On Food and Cooking’, H McGee, 2004
‘Food Plants of the World’, B van Wyk, 2005

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