The Jerusalem artichoke is an edible tuber--a subterranean stem-swelling--of an American sunflower, Helianthus tuberosus. It resembles the ginger root and its flavor, when cooked, is like that of an artichoke heart. J-chokes are frequently used as feed for livestock, but can also be eaten by humans raw, pickled, stewed or baked--and should be, because they're comparable to red meat in iron content.

The "Jerusalem" portion of this vegetable's name was long thought to be a modification of the Italian word for sunflower, girasole, but food-scholar Harold McGee has resurrected old evidence supporting the belief that "Jerusalem" may be a corruption of Terneuzen, the name of the town in Holland where, in 1613, it was cultivated and then, perhaps, exported to England.

French explorers first recorded their introduction, by Native Americans, to the Jerusalem artichoke in 1605. Shortly thereafter, samples of the new delicacy were shipped back to Europe, where it enjoyed a brief vogue as a tasty, easy-to-grow New World novelty. The topinambour--named for a group of visiting native Brazilians--soon fell from popularity when its one serious defect became evident: the Jerusalem artichoke generates enormous volumes of intestinal gas.

That's right--roughly 50% of the Jerusalem artichoke, by weight, is carbohydrates--inulin and fructosans--for which the human body has no digestive enzymes, making it at least 3 times as farty as any bean. Can anything be done to rescue the Jerusalem artichoke from gastronomic obscurity (and save the ass of the adventurous cook)? "Yes," says (again) McGee; cold storage helps, slicing the tubers and boiling in water for 15 minutes (with a quarter-teaspoon of cream of tartar or a tablespoon of lemon juice per quart of water to prevent discoloration) is better, and slow, covered baking in a 200°F oven for 24 hours will convert an even greater percentage of the indigestible carbohydrates into fructose. After that, you can use your Jerusalem artichokes just about anywhere you would use a potato, sweet potato or turnip.

Source: McGee, Harold; The Curious Cook; North Point Press; San Francisco; 1990

To successfully grow Jerusalem artichokes, I recommend dedicating a bed solely to this particular plant. These plants are incredibly easy to grow, and in fact, can become invasive if not controlled. Jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes as they are sometimes called are a perennial plant native to North America. They are indeed related to the Sunflower and produce plants and flowers that look much like sunflowers, but without the characteristic seeds from sunflower heads.

Jerusalem artichokes were a main food for many Native American tribes. In 1605, the explorer Champlain took some tubers back to France with him where they became very popular by the middle of the century. Sunchokes were one of the foods introduced by Indians to the pilgrims, and indeed, became a mainstay for early whites in North America. Lewis and Clark were served Jerusalem artichokes in North Dakota in 1805. They, along with regular sunflowers, are often included in traditional three sisters native American gardens of corn, beans and squash.

In recent years, Jerusalem artichokes have gained attention because the tubers contain inulin (not insulin) that breaks down into sugar fructose when eaten. Fructose is reputed to be of value in the diets of people suffering from diabetes.

In my opinion, the best way to grow Jerusalem artichokes is in a raised bed. I first build an open box about 6 feet wide and 12 feet long and 12-18 inches tall. This can be any size that fits in your garden. I fill it with compost and the best soil I can find. Using a raised bed such as this helps keep the soil light and non-compacted, and also helps keep the plants from taking over the rest of the garden. In the fall, I cut some of the tubers up, making sure each piece has 2 or 3 "eyes". I plant them about 2 inches deep and pretty much let them grow until next fall. The plants grow so fast that I rarely have to weed. The plants can grow to 10 feet, so I make sure that nothing else in my garden will be shaded when they reach full height. I mulch them all summer with thin layers of grass from the lawn, and feed them manure tea whenever I think of it. I know of no insects or diseases that affect Jerusalem Artichokes, but Deer will find them attractive. In the fall, when the tops of the plants begin to die back, I can either harvest the tubers using a pitchfork, or because the soil doesn't freeze where I live, I leave the tubers in the ground until I'm ready to use them. This seems to improve the flavor, and also allows me to have sunchokes all winter long. This also automatically plants my artichoke bed for next year. If the tubers are harvest, they can be stored for about 5 months at 32 degrees and 90% relative humidity...about what a refrigerator is. The tops of the plants make great cattle, chicken, or pig food, and are also great for compost piles because of their bulk. These are easy, spectacular, fun plants to grow, and I absolutely love the taste of boiled Jerusalem artichokes dipped in ranch dressing.

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