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.