Today it’s time to go back to one of the so-called ‘forgotten vegetables ‘ that seem to currently be very popular: the Jerusalem artichoke, sunchoke or topinambour (Helianthus tuberosus)., a tuberous sunflower species, as anyone who knows a bit of Latin should have derive from the scientific name by now. the plant is rarely grown for its flowers in these areas nevetheless. They are indeed small sunflowers, but they only appear very late in the year, since the species is dependent on the length of daylight and starts to think of producing flowers only if the day is shorter than the night (sometime after the autumn equinox on sept, 21), which happens to be just before the foliage dies from frost in our climate…
Not that the plants will only get noticed from October though, all summer long they’ll give you plenty of long green leaf-covered stems that can grow up to 3 meter tall. Because of the size, and because the plant sometimes gets invasive, it’s better to think about the place where you want it, before you plant it in your garden…
Unlike the ordinary annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus), the Jerusalem artichoke is a perennial species of sunflower. In the winter half-year the foliage dies off, but the plant itself remains alive thanks to underground root tubers, which are also the part of the plant which we are interested in here. Those tubers are used as a vegetable and have a special taste, unique but somewhere reminiscent of Salsify, and according to some also to the artichoke (hence the name ‘ Jerusalem artichoke ‘ despite the fact that the plant has nothing to do with Jerusalem, nor is it an actual artichoke) This taste is found in more plants of the sunflower family, for example in sunflower petals and the mysterious guascas, and comes partly from the presence of the sugary inulin, that also makes the plant quite healthy for diabetics. (Note here that insulin and insulin are not the same, though they are both beneficial for diabetics!)
There are several ways to prepare the sunchoke. A “basic-Flemish recipe ‘ could be to serve them, as we would with Salsify or cauliflower, with white sauce, meat and boiled potatoes. A little vinegar in the boiling water is not a bad idea, because the sunchoke otherwise may color brownish grey due to oxidation. But there are many more possibilities in the kitchen with this vegetable, and in recent years the so-called ‘ forgotten vegetables ‘, including the sunchoke, have been getting more attention, so many more recipes have been invented for them.(It’s alsomuch easier to find them in a supermarket over here as it used to be…) It’s also always possible to experiment yourself and make up new recipes. (that’s where new recipes come from…)
Jerusalem artichokes are not that difficult to harvest: You just pull the stem out of the ground, and you’ll get some of the tubers already, and the other ones are easy to find with some digging. A disadvantage of Jerusalem artichokes is that won’t store for very long. Tthey dry out quickly, so it’s better to keep them in the ground and actually wait to pul them out until the moment you you are going to eat them… You shouldn’t fear the frost, the tubers are very frost-hardy.
My parents used to have the plant in our garden since I was 12 or so, but we never were that enthusiastic about the plant as a vegetable. Partly because the variety that we have always tends to form huge knobbly tubers, that seem to keep dirt on them no matter how hard you try to wash them A tuber that you can’t peel well and stays dirty is not really the most convenient vegetable, so the sunchoke as I knew it was an interesting tasting vegetable that was not much fun to cook with. (Only later I found out that it’s much easier to cook them first and then peel them…)
That ambivalence about sunchokes seemed to be more relative when I realised that the plant that we had until then was but one race of many. Apparently there were other breeds of Jerusalem artichoke, some of which which seemed to be more promising. So this spring I started to try out new varieties. Apart from my old variety (which I had dubbed “knobbelmonster”) I planted 2 types of tubers from the supermarket, as well as a variant that I found somewhere in the wild, escaped from a garden. The logic was that commercial varieties usually have properties that are interesting for sale, and on the other hand, that plants that are able to make the escape to the wild certainly are adapted to our climate and other local growth conditions.
(It would be nice to cross them and then to select a variety best suited to what I want, but that is difficult in this climate with the species, because it doesn’t produce seed due to the late flowering period. All breeds are clones over here, and propagated vegetably, so new varieties will not arrive quickly.. . Maybe I should try to force them one day inside to get seed formation?)
The 2 types from the grocery store proved to be completely identical, so in the end I had 3 different types sunchoke: my old “knobbelmonster”, the wild “back to nature”, and the commercial “supermarket”. It is clear that if we compare “knobbelmonster” is not exactly the most interesting variety in the kitchen. Both the wild form as the supermarket form score much better on form and washability. The wild form had a lower yield though, although that might had something to do with transplanting them very early in the season.
After a test to compare the taste the case is all even more difficult: “knobbelmonster”, as is often the case with old varieties case, has a much better taste in spite of all its disadvantages, and “supermarket” has, despite all the good properties, much less character in terms of taste … So it’s not easy after all
(On the photo, we see “supermarket” on the left, “back to nature” in the Middle, and “knobbelmonster” on the right, while on the photo at the beginning of the article they are in reverse order.)
taste: full, superior aroma
color: purple red
form: small bulbs are round, large tubers are monsters of knobbly bits and stuff that’s impossible to peel.
other comments: difficult to wash the earth off the tubers for some unclear reason
“back to nature”
color: brownish white
form: nice simple tubers, more oval in shape
other comments: lower yield might be due to transplanting.
taste: okay, but not specifically interesting compared to the others
shape: usually regular shaped tubers, very round shapes
The message here is therefore a bit conflicting: the old breed is better in terms of taste, but otherwise rather difficult in use. On the other hand, the commercial race is not that interesting in taste, but much better on all other things, and the wild selection is in the middle. Further experimenting might be a good idea: The first trial clearly showed that there are big difference between varieties. Trying more breeds will definitely be a good idea!