Jerusalem Artichokes: Somebody’s Idea of a Joke

I’m with my friend Addison at the farmer’s market and he says he saw some Jerusalem artichokes at a produce stand. I wanted to have a look, but when we got there, I just see a bunch of knotty, ginger-like root vegetables. “Those aren’t Jerusalem artichokes,” I muttered. Addison–thumbing the man behind the counter–says, “I think this guy knows his roots.” He’s polite enough not to add “and now he knows you’re a moron, too.”

I am, of course. And they were, of course. So when the vendor said I could boil them and mash them like potatoes, I bought a large bag.

Even after you’ve seen them, you don’t really know what the hell Jerusalem artichokes are. The Big Yellow Cookbook says with a chuckle that they’re neither artichokes nor from Jerusalem, but rather New World tubers that taste sort of like artichoke hearts, and are more appropriately referred to as “sunchokes.” The Jerusalem bit is a classic English mispronunciation of “girasole,” the Italian sunflower which resembles its aboveground plant. Eaters don’t care about the plant, though, they just want the root.

The root has a tough skin, like ginger, that you have to remove before doing anything. This sounds simple, but it’s a giant pain. Imagine the knottiest ginger ever, and you armed only with a peeler. I think I spent 30 minutes just peeling these little bitches. What I do know is that next time I buy them, I will select only the plumpest and least knotty specimens.

For mashed Jerusalem artichokes, Gourmet recommends cutting in some potatoes, at a 3:1 ratio. So I had about a pound and a half of the chokes, and peeled a few smallish potatoes alongside. (Measurements don’t matter here: It’s not science, just a starchy side dish.)

I boiled the chokes and potatoes for 25 minutes or thereabouts, with a bit of salt. After the boil, they were ready for mashing, but I must admit, I’m sad that I did.

When I tasted one whole, it had a fun firm vegetable consistency and an earthy characteristic, very much like an artichoke heart. If I was smart, I would have stopped there, and served them alongside a dish of melted butter with lemon juice, or maybe some basil flakes sprinkled in. But no, I had to do what everyone else says to do (everyone else being Gourmet and the guy at the farmer’s market). I mashed.

Adding butter and salt and pepper, my unexpected little tubers became just like mashed potatoes. Boring-as-shit mashed potatoes. Still, I held out hope that their unique flavor would prevail. I was doing something fun–preparing a clever twist on an American staple side dish. I held out hope that this would be appreciated by my audience of 1.

Nope. Jenny thought they were bitter and none too pleasant. I don’t even think she finished them. She loved the hell out of that steak and Brussels sprouts though:

What did we learn?

1. Peeling Jerusalem artichokes is a pain in the ass.

2. Cooking Jerusalem artichokes is really really easy: Boil for 25 minutes. Done.

3. Serving them as mashed potatoes is an affront to their exoticism.

4. Serving them whole or diced, salted and peppered, with butter (or EV olive oil) for dipping is a better way to get your diners to understand what they are, but even so, the guests may not like ’em.

As I said, Jerusalem artichokes are somebody’s idea of a joke, but like Dane Cook, Comedy Central roasts and the current season of SNL, it’s not a very good one.

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One response to “Jerusalem Artichokes: Somebody’s Idea of a Joke

  1. Johnny Chosptix

    It seems a shame to stop here with your experimentation. I’m thinking of adding something to the boiling water to neutralize the bitterness.. what to add? what to add? Perhaps like potatoes they need salt in the cooking water to fully develop their flavor. Lemon peel to the water? or perhaps a vinegar: wine, balsamic or cider? Garlic?

    You had me quite curious and I poked around the internet until I found this link, which you may have found as well: http://www.vegparadise.com/highestperch26.html

    Nice historical references and then excellent practical information on the sunchokes, as well as a lovely vegetarian sandwich recipe. The author doesn’t peel his/her chokes and encourages eating them raw.

    You have piqued my epicurean curiosity. Now, if only someone actually sold these little devils around here… *sniffles*

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