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.