September 10, 2014

You Say Potato, I Say Sunchok - Photo courtesy net_efekt/Flickr (HobbyFarms.com)

Have you ever eaten a Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus)? You might have seen them at the farmers’ market, but if you didn’t know to look you could easily have missed them. Honestly, in the sale bin they look to me like ginger without all the armor. Let me tell you why you want to keep an eye out next time.

The Jerusalem artichoke, or sunchoke, is a Midwest native that produces an edible tuber. It’s in the sunflower family, so it has a beautiful yellow flower. While it looks like a miniature sunflower, it doesn’t develop seeds. It grows on waste ground in the margins between fields or on the edges of woody areas. Ours grow at least 6 feet high and have a decidedly purple undertone to the green in the leaves and stem.

We bought tubers one year and couldn’t figure out where their final home would be. We wound up sticking them into a spare pile of dirt just off the driveway for safekeeping and now that entire area is filled with sunchokes. We have accidentally planted them around the farm a few times by moving dirt in the spring.

You Say Potato, I Say Sunchok - Photo courtesy J. Michael Ray/Flickr (HobbyFarms.com)

You harvest sunchokes in the fall just after the first or second frost. This is when they will have the best flavor. If you’d like to use them for their health benefit, it’s best to use them right away. This delicious vegetable is high in inulin, a starch effective in controlling blood sugar. They are, therefore, a wonderful potato substitute for diabetics.

If you want to eat them raw, you can slice them like a water chestnut to add to salads. If you would like to cook them, use them like potatoes. Sunchokes are creamy, nutty and delicious when steamed or roasted. My family was skeptical the first time I served them, especially my father, but the creamy soup I made changed everyone’s mind.

Unfortunately, if you dig up all the sunchokes at once and attempt to store them, their starches will transform as they sit, eventually matching the potato’s glycemic index. For their medicinal value, it’s really best to grow your own and harvest them just as you need them. In a couple months we’ll trim off the tops to prepare for digging, though some people use a mower. Once trimmed, they are ready to begin digging. If you would like to keep digging through the winter months, cover the area with a thick mulch to keep the ground from freezing.

My favorite benefit for eating the Jerusalem artichoke is that inulin is an important food source for the healthy flora in your gut. I don’t know of anyone in this day and age that doesn’t need to work on repopulating their digestive workforce. Our American diet and lifestyle chokes off the good bacteria that are intended to live in our digestive system. This sad state of affairs leads to all manner of inflammatory diseases within the body. These colonies are there to digest our food properly. In some cases, without them there are certain vitamins and minerals our bodies can’t use. Every aspect of daily life is affected when we aren’t getting nutrition from our food.

Make room in your garden for this easy-to-grow ornamental. Your gut will thank you for it!

Read up on other root vegetables to add to your garden:

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