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I debated whether to call this dish a souffle or a spoonbread.  Technically, it doesn’t fit the definition of either, but texture-wise, it could pass for both.  I opted for “souffle” since that designation places …

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The Jerusalem Artichoke: An apolitical tuber seeking to win the hearts and minds of potato-addicts everywhere

Submitted by on January 15, 2009 – 7:11 am21 Comments
 
© Lianem | Dreamstime.com

© Lianem | Dreamstime.com

It may be named for an artichoke and look like ginger, but the Jerusalem artichoke is very much its own vegetable. It’s not even from Jerusalem, so it’s actually as politically neutral as Switzerland. And since it’s at its peak of deliciousness now, what better time than to get to know this misunderstood tuber?

About Jerusalem Artichokes

Well, to start. It’s not an artichoke. It’s the root tuber of a sunflower, probably named after an actual artichoke because when it’s nice and cooked and soft, its subtly sweet flavor tastes just like an artichoke heart. (Not the briny kind you get from a jar, but the fresh kind that most of us are too lazy to cook at home.) You may also have heard it referred to as a sunchoke.

The business case: why you should give Jerusalem Artichokes a try

  1. They are delicious. And starting in October through the early spring, they’re at their sweetest and peak deliciosity.
  2. They are a healthy alternative to potatoes.
    When cooked (boiled or roasted or sauteed), they’ll resemble a slightly creamier cooked potato, but because of their unique carbohydrate profile (see below), they’re slightly lower in calories and have a much lower glycemic index. In other words, their impact on blood sugar is minimal compared to a similarly-sized portion of regular potatoes. This makes them a good potato-substitute for potato-loving people with diabetes or for anyone looking to help control their appetites by eating foods that don’t cause major spikes in their blood sugar levels.
  3. They have multiple digestive health benefits, owing to their high levels of inulin–a form of soluble fiber known as a “prebiotic”. Inulin is also shown to increase calcium absorption substantially, so you could think about trying them out in a meal containing calcium-rich foods to get more out of your mouthful.
  4. They’re a good source of iron. A modest 1/2 cup serving contains about 14% of the daily value for iron, compared with approximately 4% in the same sized portion of baked potato.

What’s inulin and what’s in it for me?

Most root vegetables–like potatoes–store their energy in the form of starch. What starch basically is is a long chain of glucose (sugar) molecules that human digestive enzymes are able to break apart and use for energy.

Jerusalem artichokes, however, store more of their energy in the form of inulin. Inulin is basically a long chain of fructose (sugar) molecules that human digestive enzymes CANNOT break apart and use for energy. That makes it a fiber instead of a starch, and that’s what’s responsible for the fact that Jerusalem artichokes have such a muted effect on blood sugar levels. Other vegetables that contain significant amounts of inulin include asparagus, garlic and chicory root.

But just because human digestive enzymes can’t digest inulin, that doesn’t mean no one can. Certain friendly bacteria in your colon can–and do–digest it. These bacteria–which include species such as the bifidobacteria (whom you may recognize from your yogurt)–are also known as probiotics. Since inulin serves as food for these probiotics, it promotes their growth and proliferation and is sometimes referred to as a prebiotic. When the bacteria digest inulin, they generate only about half of the energy (calories) as you would from digesting a regular carbohydrate: ~2 calories/gram instead of the typical 4 calories/gram. This helps explain why Jerusalem artichokes contain fewer calories for a comparable serving size of potatoes.

A thriving probiotic community in your colon is a very good thing. The bifidobacteria help prevent the growth of pathogenic (disease-causing) bacteria, help lower blood cholesterol levels, help prevent colon cancer, and produce B vitamins. Inulin also increases calcium absorption in the intestines, which is useful if you’re like one of the millions of Americans who prefer their skeleton hard and intact. Lastly, if you’ve got a problem with constipation, foods rich in inulin have a good track record for helping to get things moving in colon-ville. Scientifically speaking, of course.

Are you convinced? Are you ready to run out to your local market to pick up some Jerusalem artichokes? Then read on:

What you should know before trying a Jerusalem artichoke

  1. Despite what your recipe may say, you do not need to peel Jerusalem artichokes before using them. (Peeling them is kind of a pain, since they are so gnarled and knobby.)
  2. You do, however, need to scrub them very well before using. (They live underground, remember..)
  3. You can eat them raw or cooked. Raw, they have that crunchy jicama/water-chestnut-ish texture and a mild, nutty flavor. Cooked, their flesh gets nice and creamy and soft and they taste more artichoke-hearty.
  4. If you’ve never tried them before, start with a small portion at first. This is to see how your intestinal flora behave in the presence of the inulin feast you’ve presented them with. Some peoples’ intestinal flora go a little bonkers and produce…oh, what’s the polite way of saying this… “flatus?” (In other words, they can cause a bit of gas…) One way to mitigate this possible effect is not to eat them raw, or try boiling as a prep-method. (Or, if you want to roast them,try blanching them in boiling water for a minute as a little pre-cook before they’re to go in the oven.) The scientific literature claims that this side effect occurs only in a small percentage of people, but in my opinion, it’s best to know whether you’re one of those people before the Queen of England invites you over for dinner and offers you a heaping mound of Jerusalem artichokes.

How to prepare them: (Recipes)

Personally, I like to roast them. I roast them using the same formula I use to roast all of my vegetables, which is: cut into pieces of equal-ish size so that they all cook evenly; toss the pieces in a bowl with olive oil; lay out the pieces on a baking sheet or roasting pan; sprinkle with (kosher) salt and pepper. (I think rosemary is a yummy addition here too, if you’re so inclined.) Bake in a 375-degree oven until they’re soft. (The time will depend on the size of the pieces, but check after about 20-25 minutes, since they can get really mushy if you overcook them.)

You can also boil them and eat. You can also boil them and then puree them to make mashed sunchokes... possibly a substitute for mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving? (After all, mashed cauliflower “potatoes” are so 2008…)

You can make them into a creamy soup by sauteeing 1 chopped onion in olive oil until soft and sweating. Add about 3 cups of sliced Jerusalem artichokes and 4 cups of broth (chicken or vegetable… whatever you prefer). Bring to a boil until the Jerusalem artichokes are nice and tender. Using an immersion blender (or transfering the mixture to a blender), puree the soup until smooth. Add 1/2 cup of fat free evaporated milk (it’s thick like cream) or lowfat milk or ricemilk (to keep it dairy-free) to the puree and add salt and pepper to taste. (Remember what we said earlier about calcium absorption… this is a great way to take advantage!) If you’re feeling decadent, garnish with a drop of truffle oil and invite me over to your place for dinner.

Sources:

Roberfroid MB. Introducing inulin-type fructans. Br. J. Nutr. 2005;93, S13-S25

Kaur N and Gupta AK. Applications of inulin and oligofructose in health and nutrition. J. Biosci. 2002; 27, 703-714.

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21 Comments »

  • [...] joins the Jerusalem artichoke in the category of misleadingly-named foods. It’s not wheat–nor is it even technically [...]

  • [...] Could that possibly sound more appealing?  In this regard, it reminds me a bit of Jerusalem artichokes, only it is higher in carbohydrate but less likely to cause gas.  You can use it in soups and [...]

  • [...] tubers contain, and to which most (though not all) people are sensitive, as Tamara Duker explains in more detail. This helps explain why our grandparents were so eager to banish [...]

  • Matt Wilson says:

    A friend gave me a few of those knobby tubers to plant in the spring, and now I have several paper grocery sacks full of roots after I dug everything up.

    I need to figure out how to store them for winter. They act like ginger (go from firm to soft to disgusting) if left to dry out.

    Also, you’re not joking about the gas!

  • Tamara says:

    I never joke about gas. :)

  • veronica says:

    I just harvested my first two J. Artichoke plants. I think I planted too. Many.

    If the yield on the rest of the plants is in line with the first two, I will have about 42# of the things. FORTY-TWO POUNDS! What the heck am I going to do with them all?!

    If my family consumes all 42 pounds, a giant green cloud of gas will engulf our village.

  • Tamara says:

    Ha! Where do you live? I will steer clear of your neighborhood until the spring…

  • Hillfarmer says:

    I eat them raw all the time and I’ve never noticed them giving me gas – maybe I already have the right intestinal flora to take care of them right. What I need is a couple good recipes so the rest of the family will relish them. They are extremely productive in good soil – great for “permaculture”!! But I’ve noticed that after growing in the same location for a few years without added fertilizer their production goes down to manageable. :)

  • Hillfarmer says:

    Make sure they stay wet in storage!

  • Eric says:

    Store Jerusalem artichokes in a plastic bucket of slightly damp soil in a cool, dark environment. They will last for months that way.

  • [...] Jerusalem artichoke has a flavour which reminds me of my childhood.  I didn’t really like them then and the dire effects they have on one’s gastric system makes me wonder why I do now.  In any event, J had grown the vegetables herself and after dinner she gave us a large bag of them to eat, plant or just turn into compost.  Three of the bulbs I planted out grew, and throughout the summer I have been rewarded with the yellow sunflower like flowers which give the plant its name.  Girasole is the Italian for sunflower – Jerusalem the Anglicisation of that term.  The thing is, a Jerusalem artichoke is neither an artichoke nor a sunflower.  It does not turn around with the sun as its namesake does and as its original name implies, nor is it part of the artichoke family. [...]

  • Intestinal flora?? Good grief…

    I just eat ‘em because they taste good. That’s allowed too! I have never had trouble farting from eating “topinambour” as we call these in France. Scrub them, boil them until they can be easily pricked with a knife point, then slice or chop them into some olive oil in which you have already cooked some lardons (bacon bits). Once nicely coated and maybe browned a little, add the bacon bits to mix and then pour the lot over some winter salad leaves, roquette/rucola, feuilles de chêne – wonderful. Bon appetit.

  • Wish I had a place to grow them… If anyone would like to get rid of their excess, please let me know… They work well in most potatoe recipes. Our favorite recipe is simple just wash and scrub well, slice, place in baking pan, cover with a little olive oil spray,then season with garlic, onion, himalayian sea salt, and fresh ground pepper, or other spices you prefer….

  • Rebecca Szymanski says:

    I had gotten 2 bulbs at a plant swap in the spring.. I put them in the ground and had been convinced I had nothing till I cut them down and pulled them out of the ground by the stalk… OMFREAKING WORD… I have an overloaded large roaster pan full of these things…

    How long can I store them.. Is there a sure fire freezer storage. I am in Michigan and have a detached garage.. not sure they will be out there over the winter…

    Also.. RECIPES… RECIPES… RECIPES….

    How do I store a few bulbs over the winter for the spring planing.. or should I find my NEW planting spot and put a few back in the ground and leave them alone to sprout next year…

    DESPERATE FOR HELP…

  • Lorne says:

    I’ve read you can leave them in the ground after fall into winter and the flavor will get sweeter- I’m not sure about places that freeze deep.

    As far as planting them for next year, my experience is you can get rid of them once you got them. I think you would need to sieve your soil to find all the little gas bombs.

    Obviously I can’t eat them and that makes me sad and my neighbors happy.

  • Kurt says:

    Inulin is not fructose, which we do absorb. Fructose is a monosaccharide which when combined with a molecule of glucose, is sucrose or common table sugar. It is NOT dietary fiber. Inulin is an energy storage form of carbohydrate found in some vegetables and tubers such as Jerusalem Artichokes. It is sometimes referred to as Fructan and this is a chain of fructose molecules and thus a polysaccharide. We don’t posses a digestive path for this polysaccharide and thus it acts as roughage in the diet that we cannot digest, provides fiber to the digestive tract, and contributes to the reasonably glycemic index rating of the Jerusalem Artichoke.

  • Danielle says:

    Does anyone know howw much space is eequired to grow these and where would you get the plants ? I’ve never seen them in my stores.

  • Gila says:

    Lovely article; I’m enjoying my very first Jerusalem artichoke right now. Glad to know that I’m not poisoning myself by eating the skin. :)

    Are you the same Tamara Duker that was at Ben Gurion University in 95-96?

  • Laura says:

    Hello,

    I’ve read some conflicting information about inulin converting to fructose when it is slow-cooked.

    Does this change occur with regardless of cooking style, and over any amount of time? Do you know if all of the inulin converts, or only some of it? Does this change the nutritional properties of the food, making it less healthy due to a higher fructose content?

    Please let me know :) .

  • Tamara says:

    Interesting question, Laura!
    From what I can tell, inulin seems to require more than just heat to convert into fructose to a nutritionally significant degree. Exhibit A: jerusalem artichokes and to a lesser degree, other inulin containing veggies, remain INCREDIBLY gassy even when roasted! If that inulin had been converted to fructose en masse, then gassiness would not be an issue. From what I’ve read, the conversion process to fructose generally requires enzymatic action, not heat alone. This means fermentation or application of enzymes during food processing.

    If you want to geek out on this stuff a little bit more, check out “Biology and Chemistry of Jerusalem Artichoke” by Kays and Nottingham.
    Otherwise, I wouldn’t worry about this too much. Seems like much more of a theoretical concern.

  • Tanya says:

    I’m in MI growing JA for 3 years now. It helped me with losing weight and managing diabetes. Gassing gets better when your guts get used to this food. I store it in the cold garage in moist sand.

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