If you love potatoes and artichokes, you simply have to give Jerusalem artichokes a try!
You’d think that the name says it all: a Jerusalem artichoke must mean an artichoke from Jerusalem, but sadly this is not the case: it is not an artichoke, and it doesn’t come from Jerusalem. What is it then? Well, it is a tuber, not unlike the madumbe, but with the subtle flavour of an artichoke. A relative of the sunflower, the Jerusalem artichokes produces a tall stem (2.5m) topped off with a number of bright yellow flowers – it’s actually pretty enough to justify in the garden without taking the edible quality into account. But that edible quality can be something else! The tubers look a bit like a cross between ginger and a madumbe – a knobbly root that grows to the thickness of a thumb – but it has the texture of a young potato and a nutty flavour that is reminiscent of an artichoke. And the name? Well, it is said that the ‘Jerusalem’ part of the name comes from the Italian word for sunflower, ‘girasole’, which was corrupted until English speakers started pronouncing it the same as that holy city. Actually, this interesting and delicious plant comes from North America.
The Jerusalem artichoke is not one of those delicacies that you need to carefully nurse through its life, only to be rewarded for your work with a tiny morsel to be eaten on the end of a toothpick. No, the Jerusalem artichoke is tough and dependable, and produces copious numbers of tubers. Plant them in a sunny spot in well-drained soil. They don’t need much and will actually grow well enough in poor soil, but as with just about any plant, they will do better if you enrich the soil with compost and a slow- release fertiliser. The tubers should be buried about 10 – 15cm deep and about 60cm apart. Water them well at first and moderately once they are established. The shoots will appear fairly soon after planting – once they are 45cm high, mound the soil up around the stems’ bases to about 15cm high, to make them more resistant to being blown over by wind. Bear in mind that these plants grow high and so will cast shade, so site them carefully. They don’t suffer too much from disease or pest attacks, so grow them without fear!
These very productive plants can produce up to 3kg of tubers each, so you won’t be running out of them any time soon. While you can keep the unwashed tubers in the fridge for up to 2 weeks, you really should harvest them as and when you need them for the best quality tubers. To harvest, lift them as you would potatoes, with a fork, and pull off as many as you need before returning the plant to the ground. If the ground is really soft, you can actually just pull the plant up and the tubers will come along. Harvesting is done in autumn and winter, when the plant has died back, but they are at their peak of quality as the leaves change colour in autumn.
The tubers are delicious, as we’ve said, and can be used just as you would young potatoes: mashed, baked, roasted, boiled. Their flavour is probably the reason why this delicacy is so expensive in the shops, and it’s amazing that they aren’t more readily available. Go on, grow your own and impress your mates.
Roasted Jerusalem artichokes
Scrub the skins of your harvest to remove all the dirt, cut in half and place in a roasting tin. Sprinkle with olive oil, salt and thyme leaves and toss well. You can add garlic cloves for extra flavour. Bake in a medium hot oven at 180°C for about 45 minutes until crisp on the outside and a nutty soft on the inside. Serve with roasted meats and other vegetables.