Jerusalem Artichoke - What's in a name?
Unlike any other industry the horticultural one seems to have the most diverse way of naming its products. Not only do we have the Latin names that change occasionally we also have a myriad of common names that vary from country to country and regions within each country. Sometimes the name makes sense, like Purple Carrots or Red Spinach and other times it has no sense or logic. Last month I wrote about the traditional Globe Artichoke. How it is used, where it comes from and some recipes, well this month I am writing about Jerusalem Artichoke which should really be called Sunchoke. This a plant with a name that has no sense. It does not come from anywhere near Jerusalem and is only vaguely related to the Artichoke. It is however a close relation to the common Sunflower.
The genus name Helianthus means sun flower and the species name refers to the edible tuber that has become a popular part of western diets. It is thought the name comes from the soft savoury flavour that is similar to a globe artichoke heart. There is some debate on why the name Jerusalem is attached. The popular consensus is that it is a corruption of the Italian word 'girasole' which means to 'turn to the sun', a peculiar habit of plants in the genus Helianthus.
It is a true herbaceous perennial that reaches up to 1.5 metres in height and 1.5 metres wide. With its stunning yellow sunflower like flowers it is an impressive plant in the perennial garden. The flowers occur in early to mid autumn with seeds ripening in late autumn. It will grow in a wide range of conditions so long as there is at least some sun available. It is not fussy about the type of soil and for a plant of its size, is quite tolerant of open and windy sites. It doesn't need a lot of moisture but responds well to regular watering and feeding over the summer months. Although they are easy to grow and appear to need little maintenance the quality of the tubers and the size of their yield will deteriorate rapidly if not lifted and replanted at least every two years.
Although related to the Sunflower the seeds are not what the plant is grown for. It is the large tubers have been harvested and eaten in North America for centuries and are now popular around the world. It is harvested in winter and if it has been subject to a frost or two the flesh is quite sweet and can be used raw in salads and similar dishes. Otherwise it is used as you would a potato for baking, steaming or frying and makes excellent soups. The flavour is a sweet but nutty one similar to a water chestnut. Like so many vegetables it is far better eaten a little under done than over cooked. The skin can be removed prior to cooking, after cooking or not at all.
Although it appears to be a starchy plant the carbohydrates are stored as a compound called inulin. This can be converted to fructose and produces a sweetner that is safe for diabetics.
Inulin is not broken down easily by the human digestion system so it is low in calories yet high in fibre, vitamin B and minerals (especially iron which makes it good for vegetarians). This makes it a good stomach filler that helps us keep a healthy weight and healthy body. The tuber is good for aiding with digestive problems like constipation and gas. However due to its low digestibility it can actually cause an excess of wind which gave rise to a common name of 'fartichoke'.
The 'wind' problem has deterred many from growing this tasty and healthy vegetable. However once you have tried it cooked well and in a balanced meal you may well take to it. Easy to grow, easy to harvest, easy to cook, tasty and healthy - what else is needed. For the first time select medium sized tubers with smooth skin. Wash and lightly scrub then cube or thickly slice, drizzle with some good quality olive oil and lemon or lime juice. Place in a hot oven with some diced eggplant and parsnip. Cook for about 30 mins then dust with a mixture of fresh rosemary, basil and oregano. Cook until tender and serve with lightly fried fish fillet and some steamed green beans that have been tossed in olive oil and garlic. Accompany with a nice buttery chardonnay and life is okay.