A plant with happy looking, golden yellow flowers that look very like sunflowers produces these clusters of knobbly tubers that can be eaten raw or cooked in many different ways – boiled, baked, sautéed, braised or steamed.
This one plant was grown by my son and as you can see the number of tubers are prolific.
In Italy the plant and tubers are called topinambur.
In Australia and the UK, these tubers are usually called Jerusalem artichokes. In the US they seem to be more commonly referred to as sunchokes. They are actually native to Canada and North America where they were cultivated and known as sunroots before the arrival of Europeans.
Like a potato plant, the topinambur roots produce tubers that turn into these delicious, knobbly mouthfuls. They have a taste like an artichoke.
My son and daughter in law tell me that the flowers attract many bees.
They can be scrubbed before eating or peeled, or you can remove the skin once cooked. This is especially advisable for those people who may have a reaction from eating them; they have a high fibre content and are high in inulin and both of these factors can cause gastric upsets in some people.
Many gardeners grow girasoli (sunflowers), and apart from growing them for looks, sunflowers are mostly used for their seeds that grow in the centre of the flower. The giant variety can grow over 3.5m tall and produce flowers up to 50cm wide.
Interestingly enough, there are a variety of sunflowers in Italy (some grow wild) and they vary in size and colour.
In Italy, they are mostly called topinambur, but other local names exist and the most common are: la rapa tedesca [German turnip], il carciofo di Gerusalemme (Jerusalem artichoke), il girasole (sun flower), taratufolo (cane artichoke) and la patata del Canada (Canadian potato). In Germany, topinambur, is considered to be one of the most exceptional tubers.
Some have assumed that the Jerusalem part of the name may have morphed come from girasole. I am more likely to associate the Jerusalem part with the culinary skills for cooking artichokes of the many Jews who settled in Italy. Carciofi alla Judea is a famous Roman dish and once the artichokes are cooked they look life flowers – from Judea comes Jerusalem. Interestingly enough, in Leaves from a Tuscan Kitchen by Janet Ross and Michael Waterfield and first published in1899, Jerusalem artichokes are referred as Carciofi di Giudea.
I do have a very large collection of cookery books celebrating cuisines from different parts of the world and written in English or in Italian and wanted to find just how popular Jerusalem artichokes are in my collection, but I have found very few recipes, especially from Italy . Those that are come mostly from the UK. Scouring through them, I found references and recipes in Jane Grigson’s Vegetable book published in 1980 and Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking (Penguin edition 1964). There are recipes in Leith’s Fish Bible, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers River Café – Italian Kitchen.
Jerusalem artichokes seem to have become much more popular in recent years and you only have to look at recent, modern cookery books or websites from the UK to see they are used creatively often combined with game especially pigeon, venison, partridge and strong tasting meat like mutton. Previously, the tubers were more likely to be combined with potatoes or artichokes. You only need to look at the most recent books of Claudia Roden, Yotam Ottolenghi, Diana Henry, Nigel Slater and a great number of other notable chefs represented in The British Chefs Series.
Modern cooks are also presenting them raw in salads, peeled or scrubbed, sliced thinly and tossed in salads with extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice they provide taste and crunch. I particularly like a simple salad made with a combination of rocket leaves, walnuts, Jerusalem artichokes and vanilla persimmons sliced thinly (they are not the squishy ones and therefore more suitable in a salad) with a dressing made from extra virgin olive or walnut oil and lemon juice.
There are recipes in my collection of Time-Life, The Good Cook Series, but on close inspection the recipes are either from the UK, Germany or France (called topinambours).
I found some recipes by Massimo Bottura, Marcella Hazan and Clifford A White (who writes about Mediterranean food). In Australia, recipes for Jerusalem artichokes are included in some of Stefano Manfredi’s collections and those from Stephanie Alexander and Maggie Beer. I am not saying that there aren’t others, but these are what I have found in my cookbook library.
Jerusalem artichokes are likely to be eaten more in the north of Italy, mostly in risotto and pasta dishes. In Piedmont they are often boiled in milk or mixed with potatoes with butter. Often , they are one of the vegetables to be dipped in a bagna cauda – a dip/sauce made with butter, olive oil, garlic and anchovies.
When they are in season, I particularly like Jerusalem artichokes scrubbed, sliced thickly, tossed with olive oil, salt and pepper, and fresh herbs – rosemary and thyme are my favourites, then placed in a single layer on a baking sheet and slow roasted (165C) for about one hour. Toss them around halfway through. They taste intense!
Look up Hank Shaw’s recipe on the web for Pickled artichokes. This is similar to Stephanie Alexander’s recipe in The Cook’s Companion. I do not like sweet pickles (Italian pickles are always sour) and both these recipes contain a fair amount of sugar, but one may be able to adapt. What is interesting in Hank Shaw’s recipe is reading the readers’ responses and suggestions.