The Jerusalem Artichoke: An apolitical tuber seeking to win the hearts and minds of potato-addicts everywhere
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
- They are delicious. And starting in October through the early spring, they’re at their sweetest and peak deliciosity.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.)
- You do, however, need to scrub them very well before using. (They live underground, remember..)
- 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.
- 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.
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.Did you like this? If so, please bookmark it, RSS feed.