Food for Thought
---- — 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.
Jerusalem artichokes still grow wild on Cape Ann. A tuft of them has been noted in Lanes Cove. My neighbor grows them, and offered me a delicious basket of the roots a few weeks ago. Friend and botanist Marvin Roberts has a healthy patch in his garden in Gloucester.
Easy to grow, pest resistant, low in calories, glycemic index kind, and high in potassium, Jerusalem artichokes have a downside. That inulin is legendarily hard to digest for some people. I confess I’ve never had that problem.
Marcella and I speak for Jerusalem artichoke’s deliciousness; as a native plant they are a wonderful addition to Thanksgiving Day. This recipe, a slow braise of thinly sliced artichokes and mushrooms, bathed in garlic and parsley, is a beautiful way to add interest to your Thanksgiving Day menu. It is even a polite bow to the Native Americans foodways that kept the early settlers alive.
If you don’t see Jerusalem artichokes in the stores, and you probably won’t, I know they can be special ordered from Willow Rest on Holly Street in Gloucester or Whole Foods; I suspect the other grocery stores would do so, too.
Sauteed Mushrooms and Jerusalem Artichokes
Based on a recipe from Marcella Hazan
1 pound Jerusalem artichokes
1 pound fresh, firm cultivated mushrooms, whole or sliced
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon chopped garlic
3 tablespoons chopped Italian fine-leaf parsley
Red pepper flakes
Skin the Jerusalem artichokes using a small paring knife or a peeler. Rinse them in cold water, then toss in lemon juice to prevent discoloration.
Using the fine slicing disk of a food processor, thinly slice artichokes.
Brush the mushrooms clean if they are whole; slice as thinly as the artichokes.
Put the oil and garlic in a large saute pan or skillet, turn heat to medium high. Cook the garlic stirring frequently, until it’s colored gold.
Add parsley, stir quickly two or three times.
Then add both the artichokes and mushrooms. Turn them over a few times to coat well.
Add red pepper flakes, salt and generous grindings of pepper. Turn heat down to low; cover the pan.
The mushrooms will shed a fair quantity of liquid. Cook, turning the pan’s contents over from time to time, until the mushroom water has completely evaporated and the artichokes feel tender when poked with a fork.
Continue to taste for salt and pepper, adding more as you need it. If, once the artichokes are done, there is still liquid left in the pan, uncover it, raise the heat, and boil all the liquid away.
Note: This dish can be cooked completely several hours in advance. Reheat gently but thoroughly, turning over the mushrooms and artichokes with a wooden spoon from time to time.
Rockport resident Heather Atwood writes the Food for Thought column weekly. Send questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her blog at HeatherAtwood.com.