Every Thanksgiving menu needs one dish with surprises. Sauteed Mushrooms and Jerusalem Artichokes, a recipe from Marcella Hazan, who adored this native American tuber, arrives at the table with not only good stories, but good nutritional information.
Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, taste like a sweeter Yukon gold, a more refined parsnip. The short, knobby roots look like ginger root, or some ancient un-evolved plant cultivated by gnomes. One online source I read said that the vegetable was once banned in Europe because it was believed that the knotted, knobby root, looking much like misshapen fingers, caused leprosy.
Peeling and cleaning the golden bumps is one of those tasks that could be tedious unless you embrace it, and then it becomes a calming lesson in hands rearranging the earth-bound.
To serve Jerusalem artichokes in New England is to serve the most local of foods. Samuel de Champlain landed on the shores of Cape Cod in 1605 and found the Wampanoags roasting Jerusalem artichokes, drying and grinding them for pancakes, even fermenting them. Champlain returned to France with Helianthus tuberosus, and the root exploded across Europe. Fields of Jerusalem artichokes now grow in Italy, the source of the confusing name. Italians tasted artichoke hearts in the mild, crisp vegetable, but named it “girasole,” meaning “turning to the sun,” for the way its golden yellow flowers face skywards. Some non-Italian speaking person reacquainting himself with the tuber heard “Jerusalem,” not “girasole.”
Members of the daisy family and the sunflower species, Helianthus tuberosus have a folkloric reputation as a remedy for diabetes. The tubers, which can be eaten raw in salads or cooked any way one would cook a potato, have no starch; the plant stores carbohydrates as inulin, giving it a much lower glycemic index than a potato.
Inulin has so many virtues that the processed food industry is looking to it as a sugar and fat substitute. A quick Wikipedia read attributes inulin with increasing calcium and magnesium absorption, and promoting the growth of beneficial intestinal bacteria; it’s considered “prebiotic,” meaning setting the intestinal stage well for a good bacteria performance.