If I told you that I’ve been growing “Jerusalem artichokes” in my garden, what sort of produce would you imagine?
Would it be a round, green bulb, covered in layers of stiff petals waiting to be boiled, peeled back, and dipped in melted butter or folded into a creamy spinach dip? Perhaps it’s slightly smaller and tougher, a result of the arid Mediterranean city from which it gets its name.
Whatever vegetable you picture, it’s probably not a tall sunflower native to the Americas with an elongated, edible tuber known for its sweet, nutty taste and tendency to cause flatulence.
But such is the delightfully strange world we live in, and this is just the vegetable I’m excited to tell you all about.
Originally cultivated by Native Americans, the Jerusalem artichoke made its way to Europe in the care of 16th-century explorers, where the soil and weather suited it so well that it soon became one of the most popular and widely available vegetables on the continent.
Eventually, the potato started to become the tuber of choice, so Jerusalem artichokes fell out of favor and were fed mostly to livestock.
The balance shifted back in the artichoke’s favor during World War II, when potatoes became a highly prized commodity, almost to the point of becoming currency. Suddenly, the abundant and inexpensive Jerusalem artichoke surged in popularity and found its way into European kitchens during and after the war.
My grandmother, who survived the second World War, used to cook for the local council kitchen in occupied France. She would tell us that, during those times, they could only grow a few vegetables without the Nazis helping themselves to the rest. But there were always plenty of Jerusalem artichokes, which she ate all the time and put to good use in the kitchen’s menu, coming up with dozens of ways to use them creatively as a staple ingredient.
What’s in a Name?
Though it’s only distantly related to actual artichokes, this root vegetable is often said to have a similar taste, which made it an honorific “artichoke” early on. The “Jerusalem” moniker is probably an English mispronunciation of the Italian word “girasole,” meaning “sunflower.”
In many European languages, including French, German, and Italian, the Jerusalem artichoke goes by the name “topinambour.” The origin of this term is uncertain, but it is thought to have derived from the Brazilian Tupinambá tribe, which was credited with being the birthplace of this polynymous tuber.
My First Taste
I tried Jerusalem artichokes for the first time when I was an apprentice chef in France.
We made a delicious velouté (a velvety soup) by boiling and blending the roots into a smooth, creamy texture and topping that with thin, pan-fried boletus mushrooms, freshly shaved white truffle, and a drizzle of truffle oil. It was at once a new and familiar taste to me; the distinct flavour of artichoke with an underlying sweet nuttiness paired perfectly with the decadent, musky truffle.
It is a memory that will stay with me forever.
Prepare and Be Prepared
Jerusalem artichokes can be prepared in so many different ways – boiled and blended into a soup, mashed, sliced and sautéed, braised, roasted… pretty much anything you can do with a potato, you can do with the Jerusalem artichoke.
One of my favorite uses is to mix it with potatoes into a simple Paris mash served alongside a warm roast in winter. It brings such a unique, earthy flavour to the meal without requiring any extravagant, expensive ingredients.
A word of caution, however – after eating Jerusalem artichokes, you can expect a good bout of flatulence. Rather than starch, these tubers store their carbohydrates as inulin. Our digestive systems can’t handle the inulin, so it’s metabolized by bacteria in the colon, stirring an effect that is sure to provide several hours of fun for you and your dinner guests.
Still Fresh at Home
Here in Australia, the Jerusalem artichoke got a late start. It wasn’t introduced to the Land Down Under until the late 1800s, so many Aussies have never tasted, seen, or even heard of it.
I’ve always loved the flavour of this marvelously unique vegetable, so I decided to try my hand at growing a small crop in my home garden. It is so resilient that it only requires slightly cool weather, fertile soil, and water to really thrive. In fact, I managed to harvest 22 kg (49 lbs) from less than 2 square metres (6.6 square feet)!
Since this is a relatively novel crop in Australia, I’m quite excited to introduce the Jerusalem artichoke to my friends and family members who have never had a chance to try it.
In addition to the soups and mashes that I’ve made several times, I’m considering trying it in something new: ice cream. Jerusalem artichokes have a natural sweetness to them, so, with a little bit of experimenting, I think it could work!
Try It Out
But until Jerusalem artichoke ice cream hits the shelves, here’s a delicious version of the velouté that gave me my first taste of this unusual vegetable.
You can likely find Jerusalem artichokes at your local market in early autumn, but you can always ask them to get some in for you. If all else fails, you can simply order online. Experiencing this dish is well worth it, I promise you.
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKE VELOUTÉ
Serves 3-4 people for an entree
- 500g Jerusalem artichokes
- 250ml (8.5 oz) chicken stock
- 200ml (6.8 oz) cooking crème
- 2 Tbsp sesame seeds
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Porcini mushroom powder (found online or at an Italian deli)
- Splash of truffle oil (found online or at an Italian deli)
- Peel and cut the artichokes into cubes. Place them in the stock and cook on low heat for about 30 min or until tender.
- Season with salt and pepper.
- When soft and ready to blend, use a stick blender to pulse it until very smooth.
- Add creme and pulse again for a minute. This should make it velvety.
- Add salt/pepper if needed.
- Add sesame seeds, a touch of porcini powder, and serve hot with a drizzle of truffle oil.