Undemanding. Vigorous. Pretty in a blowzy sorts of way. Tall. You could almost be talking about me. But not quite: Helianthus tuberosus is what I mean. You know: Jerusalem artichokes, sunchokes, sunroots, earth apple, tobinambours. Look at them in that somewhat blurry September picture, towering over the arches of the cold frame – well over 8 feet tall (the arches top at 4 feet tall and the ground is sloping up, so the prospective is somewhat distorted). But tall they will grow in decent garden soil, and that only from spring to fall as they are an herbaceous perennial – impressive, no?
The bright yellow flower is cheerful and pretty too, in an unsophisticated care-free sorts of way – although small when compared to the overall plant size. Nothing like its fat headed cousin the annual sunflower.
Some people actually things sunroots are “invasive”. Well… for those of us on the Eastern North American seabord, that’s impossible: Helianthus tuberosus is native to Eastern North America (from Quebec to North Florida and as west as North Dakota). How can something native be invasive? Certainly they are robust, and hardy – as suggested by their natural range. For example, weeding is one thing you do not even have to think about when planting Jerusalem artichokes. The sunroots will choke weeds outs – I expect because they are extremely vigorous and because they may emit some natural allelopathic chemicals which stunt the growth of other herbaceous plants – just like sunflowers (This effect is known for sunflowers, I do not know if it’s true of sunroots, but it would make sense since they are so closely related)
Their dried stems make decent enough kindling, and I am convinced they would make very convenient shademats, very convenient indeed to shade lettuce in summer. Right! There, just added that to the list of things to do: Sunroot stem shademats.
Anyway their roots – or rather their tubers (tuberosus, after all) is what we eat. So dig them up and they’ll spread less. Maybe.
Because they can grow in just about any soil, one often sees the advice to plant them in a poor patch of soil, including clay. Sure. They might grow more slowly in hard clay, but digging them out will be much – much – harder than if grown in loose humusy soil. In loose humusy soil, the roots grow bigger, less knobby (i.e easier to clean), and of course easier to dig – more importantly, much easier to dig up completely. You should care, why? because any piece left in the ground will send new shoots, and new plants…
The tubers do not store very well – unless you so happen to have a real root cellar where you can keep them cool and packed in moist sand. Otherwise they shrivel. So you should only dig them up as needed. The tubers should also be subject to several months of cold temperature to naturally break down their complex sugars into more digestible molecules. That means that I start eating them in January, and in January it is a lot easier to dig roots out of good loose garden soil than out of clay soil. Oh… do not get rid of any excess tubers by tossing them on the compost pile: they will root and grow. Everything single one. Which may be a good thing. Depending how you look at it.
Too much of a good thing? A matter of prospective, entirely. Don’t abuse eating them, and you’ll be friends. To be fair: some people digest them less well than others – earning them the nickname of “fartichokes”. For us, it seems that waiting until winter is well underway to dig them (so they have had their cold dormancy), eat them very shortly after they’ve been harvested and not gorge on them does the trick. Which is good, because they truly are tasty.
I’ve made soups with them, fried them (olive oil, lard or duck fat, a sprinkling of thyme to finish them off). Other eat them raw in salads to enjoy their natural crunchiness. This year, I am also pickling them. I noticed Hank Shaw’s recipe a few years ago and it stayed in the back of my mind. Then I came across another one in Edna Lewis In Pursuit of Flavor and then again in one of the Lee Brothers’ cookbooks… mmm… clearly not a new idea. Since I do not like sweet pickles, I omit the sugar completely (although I am trying a batch with 2 Tablespoons of sugar per quart). I also do not brine them in advance, I think the long maceration in vinegar with spices brings plenty of flavor and I certainly do not use alum – they are crunchy enough naturally. Brining or alum might be necessary though if you were to can them through a water-bath process, so that they remain crunchy. If that’s what you like to do, go ahead. But I like my pickles tart, and easy. While I think curcuma and mustard seeds are indispensable, you certainly can vary the herbs and spices for a slightly different profile (fennel seeds and thyme? clove and cinnamon? lemon grass & lemon peel? why not… )
I first made the pickles earlier this year, and tested them as part of a charcuterie plate with saucisson and sopressa. Great success! The very faint artichoke flavor and crunchiness had people wonder – and me explaining about this native vegetable – but the tray came back polish cleaned. They are also good with grilled cheese sandwiches, anywhere where you might serve more typical pickles in fact: antipasti plate, tuna salad, cold meats, hors d’oeuvre tray etc. mmm. maybe even with a lamb mechoui?
Sunchoke Pickles (Jerusalem Artichoke Pickles)
- 1 generous pound fresh sunroots
- Large bowl of water with a Tablespoon of lemon juice
- 1 or 2 dried chile
- 1 or 2 bay leaf
- 1 1/2 cups cider vinegar (white vinegar works too)
- 1/2 cup water (or use vinegar for a total of 2 cups if you want them très tart)
- 1 tsp pickling or sea salt
- 1 teaspoon curcuma
- 2 Tablespoons sugar (optional)
- 1 teaspoon mustard seeds
- 1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
- a few slices of fresh ginger root (optional)
- 1/2 teaspoon whole cumin seeds
- 1/2 teaspoon black or white peppercorn
- Thoroughly scrub sunroots – peel if desired (I don’t bother), trim as needed. Slice into 1/8″ thick slices. Drop slices into the bowl of lemon water to avoid discoloration.
- In each heat-proof jar, put the dried chili and bay leaf.
- In a non reactive saucepan, mix the vinegar, water and all remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil. Stir well then simmer for 3 or 3 minutes.
- Lift the the sunroots from the lemon water, drain them quickly, then pack into jar(s). Gently pour the hot vinegar mixture over. If you are canning, do it at this stage*, otherwise let cool. Refrigerate for long shelf life.
- Wait at least a week before eating so that the flavors have a chance to meld.
* If you are going to can them, be sure to use canning jars, leave enough headspace and use the usual procedures…