More Fun with Jerusalem Artichokes

Once again, about a week ago, I dug into the roots of my Jerusalem artichokes, isolated in a corner of the yard where they get no water that doesn’t fall from the sky, and confined by the landscape fabric I spread to keep the Bermuda grass from invading from two neighbors’ yards.

fresh Jerusalem artichokesOnce again I found a bounty. I loaded the roots into a galvanized washtub and hosed them clean. And then I wondered how Robert and I would eat them all—and how we could do it while avoiding “a filthy loathsome stinking wind,” as John Goodyer described the roots’ aftereffects in 1617.1

roasted Jerusalem artichokesThe same day I roasted some of the roots—in the way you would usually roast vegetables, but slower, at 350 degrees F for two hours. The long cooking, I figured, might make the inulin-rich roots more digestible. It did not—but what a delicious dish! The chunks turned out crunchy on the outside and soft and candy-sweet on the inside. Robert thought they would make an excellent side for roast beef.2

Frying Jerusalem artichokesMost of the roots were still sitting in colanders on the kitchen counter when my digestion returned to normal.3 Again they tempted me. I remembered how tasty baked artichoke chips were, the last time I made them. No doubt artichoke chips would be even tastier fried. They would be less trouble to cook that way, and I could quickly use up a large quantity of roots. fried Jerusalem artichokesIn the end I was glad I’d cooked a lot, because the chips shrank substantially; they lost two-thirds of their weight. They turned out curled and brown, a sweet, salty, crisp, greasy delight. They still have gassy powers, but we haven’t suffered much as long as we’ve restricted ourselves to a handful a day. (This takes discipline. The chips are addictive!)

Advocates of vinegar pickling Jerusalem artichokes insist that they won’t cause gas if they’re first boiled and then soaked in vinegar. I suspect the vinegar works simply by slowing consumption. Boiling, however, actually reduces the inulin in the roots; Harold McGee, in The Curious Cook (1990), also advises this method. In fact, inulin is highly soluble in water. It must be the inulin that makes the bubbles appear strangely large when you boil Jerusalem artichokes; the stuff apparently acts as a surfactant. McGee boiled his Jerusalem artichokes for fifteen minutes and figured he had drawn out 40 to 50 percent of the “indigestibles”—the powdery residue left in the pan after he had boiled off the water.

Unfortunately, I don’t like the taste of boiled Jerusalem artichokes. The roots are much tastier raw, roasted, or fried. Judiciously combined with other vegetables, though, Jerusalem artichokes can add appeal. So I boiled some of the roots to mix with mashed potatoes. I routinely boil potatoes as my mother and grandmother did, with only a little water, so the pan ends up dry when the potatoes are ready and no nutrients are lost in the water. To reduce the inulin in the Jerusalem artichokes, though, I gave them a different treatment: I put them into a separate pan, covered them with water, boiled them for about fifteen minutes, and then discarded all the water. The artichokes don’t soften as potatoes do, but if you peel them before or after boiling them (peeling them first is more trouble but may help them shed more inulin) you can force them through a ricer like the one shown here.3   Without drawing too much attention to themselves, the Jerusalem artichokes nicely sweetened the starchy, dry Makah Ozette potatoes.(The Jerusalem artichoke announced its presence more aggressively, but tolerably, some hours later.)

I boiled more Jerusalem artichokes to make a purée to store in the freezer. This time I used a blender, and blended the roots with fresh water instead of the water from the pan. I hope the purée will combine well in a potage with leeks, celery, and other vegetables as well as potatoes.

Here are my recipes for the roasted roots and fried chips. I hope you enjoy them—in moderation, of course!

Fried Jerusalem Artichoke Chips

6 cups cold water
3 tablespoons fine salt
3 pounds Jerusalem artichokes (not peeled)

Put the water into a bowl, and stir in the salt. Slice the Jerusalem artichokes 2 millimeters thick (use a mandoline, if you have one). Drop the slices into the brine as you work. Let the slices soak in the brine for about 4 hours.

Drain the Jerusalem artichoke slices in a colander, and then fry them in batches in oil heated to 350 degrees F. Move them around in the oil every now and then so they cook evenly. When they are shrunken, curled, and lightly browned, they are ready. This should take about 4 minutes. Drain them on paper towels, paper bags, or newspaper.

Roasted Jerusalem Artichokes

1½ pounds Jerusalem artichokes, cut into chunks (not peeled)
1 large sprig fresh rosemary (optional)
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon kosher salt
A few grindings black pepper

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Put the Jerusalem artichokes into a baking dish with the rosemary, if you’re using it. Pour over the olive oil, and toss. Sprinkle over the salt and pepper. Bake the artichokes for about 2 hours, until they are brown on the outside and tender on the inside.

1. John Gerard’s Herball, 1621. Actually, Goodyer exaggerated. The “wind” is not filthy or stinking, just noisy and somewhat painful.

2. Harold McGee, in The Curious Cook, advises steaming Jerusalem artichokes in an oven at 200 degrees F for 24 hours to break down the inulin into fructose. To me that would seem an extravagant use of fuel, and anyhow his artichokes turned out black.

3. This is not the best way to store Jerusalem artichokes. They should at least be refrigerated; it’s best, in fact, to store them at just above freezing. They also need high humidity during storage. Some people pack them in moist sand or soil in a box or bucket set in a cool place. Alternatively, you can simply leave them in the ground, and dig them out only as you need them, until approximately the end of March.

4. This ricer seems made for Makah Ozette potatoes. Because of their many, deep-set eyes, peeling Ozettes before cooking them wastes too much potato flesh. Peeling them after cooking is too difficult, and burned fingers can ruin your mood. Not peeling the potatoes at all makes for an ugly, uneven mash. But with a ricer you end up with a perfectly smooth mash. The clean skins are left behind, flattened against the screen of the ricer.

 

Taking the Wind Out of Jerusalem Artichokes

jerusalem artichokes
Jerusalem artichokes look like thick, pale gingerroots.

Does your spouse refuse to eat Jerusalem artichokes because they’re too—err—windy? Have you yourself abandoned your Jerusalem artichoke patch to the weeds or the pigs, because no human of your acquaintance would eat the damn things again? If so, you have plenty of company.

If you can’t quite place this native North American vegetable, you may know it instead by a name invented by a California produce wholesaler in the 1960s: the sunchoke. The sun part of this moniker comes from sunflower, because the plant is closely related to the sunflower that provides us seeds for birds and snacks and oil. Jerusalem artichoke blooms look like small sunflowers, and they can grow just as tall.

The Jerusalem part of Jerusalem artichoke came about soon after the plants were first grown in Europe, in the early seventeenth century at the Farnese Garden in Rome. From there they were distributed to the rest of Europe as Girasole articiocco, “sunflower artichoke.” In the diet book that he published in 1620, an English doctor, Tobias Venner, translated Girasole as “Jerusalem”—a good first guess, perhaps, but unfortunately the name stuck. Soon inventive English cooks were making their Jerusalem artichokes into “Palestine soup.”

Sunroot would be a better name for the vegetable than sunchoke, because Jerusalem artichokes certainly are not artichokes, and they have nothing like the hairy, inedible part of an artichoke that is called the choke. Yet the two vegetables known as artichoke are discreetly similar in their chemical makeup and flavor. Samuel de Champlain noted this in 1605, when he found Indians on Cape Cod growing roots with “le goust d’artichaut,” the taste of artichokes. Both artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes, he may have observed, share a peculiar sweetness. This sweetness comes from inulin, a kind of soluble fiber that passes through the human digestive system intact until bacteria go to work on it in colon, releasing a lot of gas in the process. Artichokes are rich in inulin. Jerusalem artichokes have about half again as much, by percentage of fresh weight.

I thank Rose Marie Nichols McGee, of Nichols Garden Nursery, for asking the question I should have long ago asked myself: Can fermentation rid Jerusalem artichokes of their windiness?

Rose Marie posed that question about a year ago, and the two of us promptly decided to conduct an experiment. After digging up the little patch of Jerusalem artichokes that I’d ignored for ten years, I brined a pint of the rhizomes according to the kakdooki (Korean fermented daikon) recipe on page 64 of The Joy of Pickling, with garlic and powdered chile. Rose Marie developed another recipe based on one of mine, she said, although nothing about it sounded the least familiar. With a stroke of brilliance, she added turmeric, so that her pickled Jerusalem artichokes turned out a brilliant yellow. We shared both pickles, hers and mine, at a Slow Food board meeting, and people seemed to find them both tasty. I requested follow-up digestive reports.

But I got none. Was this good news? I couldn’t be sure. Apparently nobody’s bellyache was bad enough to prompt a complaint. But, then, the meeting attendees hadn’t actually agreed to tell me about their gas problems. Some of them may have felt they really didn’t know me well enough. And none of them had eaten more than a small handful of the pickled rhizomes. So the results of our study were inconclusive.

In digging up my Jerusalem artichoke patch, however, I must have missed a little rhizome. Last summer, sans weeding and sans water, a single nine-foot sunflower stalk shot up. I could experiment some more!

I waited through most of the winter to dig up the rhizomes, because time alone has been said to convert much of the inulin in Jerusalem artichokes to fructose. In January, I harvested a crop just as big as the previous year’s, at least ten pounds. Several nights of temperatures around 0 degrees Fahrenheit had done the rhizomes no harm.

I first assessed their windiness by simply roasting some with salt, pepper, and olive oil. The roasted rhizomes were delicious, but still gassy.

Inspired by Rose Marie’s example, I then pickled some of the Jerusalem artichokes in this way:

fermented jerusalem artichokesMellow Yellow Jerusalem Artichoke Pickle

1½ pounds Jerusalem artichokes, broken into nodes, thoroughly scrubbed, and cut into ½-inch dice
1 teaspoon ground dried turmeric
1 ounces garlic (about 8 cloves), chopped
½ ounce fresh ginger, minced (about 1 ½ tablespoons)
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 teaspoons pickling salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1½ cups water

Toss together the diced Jerusalem artichokes, the turmeric, the garlic, the ginger, and the cumin. Pack the mixture into a jar with a capacity of at least 6 cups. Dissolve the salt and sugar in the water. Pour the brine over the Jerusalem artichokes; it will not cover them at first. Add a brine bag (a gallon freezer-weight plastic bag containing 1 tablespoon salt dissolved in 3 cups water) or another suitable weight.

The next day the brine should cover the Jerusalem artichokes. If it doesn’t, add more brine mixed in the same proportions.

Wait several days before tasting the pickle. I found it perfect after a week: The brine was sour, and the Jerusalem artichokes pleasantly, mildly spicy and still crunchy.

When the pickle has fermented enough to suit your taste, store the jar in the refrigerator. Keep the Jerusalem artichokes weighted so they won’t take on a grayish cast.

Several people have now eaten this pickle in potentially distressing quantities. The test subjects remained on site this time, so that if reports didn’t come verbally they would emerge in another form. And nobody has suffered.

I hope that these results will be duplicated by other investigators. Let me know, OK? Don’t be shy.

Homemade Chicory Coffee

After I’d used up all the chicons Rich Collins had sent me, I couldn’t bring myself to throw their half-pound roots in the compost. The chicory cultivars preferred for blanching today are distinct from those preferred for coffee, but all of these varieties are one and the same species; unlike most wild chicory, they all have thick, fleshy roots. So I had to try grinding and roasting my gift roots for chicory coffee.

Coffee blended with chicory became popular in Europe when the naval wars following the French Revolution drove up the price of pure bean brew. The taste—or, perhaps more accurately, tolerance—for coffee-chicory blends spread from France to the Creoles of New Orleans. New Orleans groceries have sold both coffee blended with chicory and ground chicory root on its own for as long as anyone remembers. But many natives say that chicory is tolerable at no more than 20 percent in a blend, and then only when the coffee is drunk with milk.

Chicory added to coffee was among the common adulterants that led to the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. I wanted to try chicory not as as adulterant but all on its own.

As I scrubbed my chicory roots, the rootlets came away along with some gritty dirt. I tasted a bit of raw root; it was awfully bitter but at the same time weirdly sweet. Chicory’s sweetness comes from inulin, a soluble fiber that feeds “good” bacteria in the gut and is used medicinally to help with constipation and calcium absorption. (Warning: Inulin can cause flatulence.)

 

In ten minutes’ time, I sliced the six roots and ground them to bits in a small food processor. Then I spread the bits on large pans and put the pans in a convection oven set at 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Within half an hour, the bits were browning. I turned the pans and began turning the chicory bits with a dough scraper every five to ten minutes.

 

After a little more than an hour and a half of cooking, the chicory was well and evenly browned. As it cooled in the pans, it smelled like caramel. I put a tablespoon of the chicory bits into a drip coffee maker and stored the rest in a jar. From three pounds of roots, I had three cups of roasted chicory bits.

Brewed with about six ounces of water, the chicory infusion came out just a little lighter than typical American coffee; a darker roast, of course, would have made a darker brew. The drink tasted sweet, but also very bitter, with none of coffee’s aroma. Cream would have improved the brew. Roasted barley might have improved it even more. But after a few sips my husband and I simply abandoned the cup. The stuff was just too bitter.

The next day I tried again, using a tablespoon of chicory bits not in the coffee maker but in a wire basket meant for infusing tea. After two minutes of steeping with water just off the boil, the brew was a dark as most coffee and, again, very bitter. I let the chicory steep for another minute, though, and now the brew was sweeter. I had extracted more inulin, and its sweetness helped to balance the bitterness. I was able to drink half the cup. I guessed that brewed chicory might most resemble coffee to people who routinely take their coffee with sugar.

The bitterness of chicory comes from other components, called sesquiterpene lactones (lactucin, lactupicrin, and 8-deoxylactucin). These substances, like inulin, are extracted by steeping chicory root in water. Although lactucin and its sister chemicals  have been little studied, various scientists have found that they discourage insects from feeding on chicory, fight malarial infection, and, in mice, relieve pain and act as a sedative.

The last of these properties—the sedative one—might be a key to chicory’s long history as a coffee additive. Not only does roasted chicory root match or exceed coffee in bitterness and balance that bitterness with natural sweetness, but chicory provides a downer drug to counteract the stimulant caffeine.

For several hours after drinking my half cup of chicory brew, I felt sleepy, sluggish, and stupid. The jar of roasted chicory root sits on my pantry shelf waiting for someone else to try it. Me, I’m sticking with unadulterated coffee.