Sunchokes: the lazy man’s root vegetable 

Two years ago, someone gave me some jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke) tubers. No special breed or anything. Just generic ones.  Having read all about these as a nightmare for people who want to use their garden beds for something else occasionally, I concluded that they were the root vegetable for me. Plant them, forget them. Remember them later when you can’t find your pets. Or else when you want to eat them. 

  
Having planted them in the garden, I’ve successfully forgotten about them and still reaped the benefits. No work. No weeding. Just Plant and Forget. Come back in the fall. 

 The only part I didn’t like was digging in the cold fall ground. I’m not a “let’s go dig around on a damp fall day!” kind of person. And then there is that thing: you’ll never get every tuber. Rather than this being a thing about trying to get rid of them, it was a sense of never having done the job completely: there’s no finishing. You could always dig more. 

So I started putting them in buckets. Then there’s no digging: just dump the bucket into a wheel barrow or a plastic tub. Pull out the tubers. Put the dirt back, throw a single tuber back in… Easy. 

Well, with last summer’s unreliable rain, those bucket-bound sunchokes started wilting. I had to water them every few days. (Effort?! boo! hiss!)

But now that it’s winter, I can drag a bucket inside one at a time and harvest the sunchokes at my leisure. Not bad… 

Because of the bucket-induced drought, there is only about a pound of tubers per 4 gallon bucket. A pound is still pretty good for making a decent meal with other stuff. 

This week I started to play around with them. 

One of sunchoke’s reputation to be a gut bender (they have a lot of inulin, which has to be broken down by gut bacteria: bacteria can get gassy, etc), I took a feather out of the cap regarding cooking another inulin rich root, wild camass. The thought is to mimic how Native Americans cooked camass: roasting them buried in moistened fire pits for days. This basically amounted to long low-temperature steaming. Well, I don’t have a fire pit, but I do have a crockpot… (For more discussion of this idea, read comments at the end of this post)

My sunchoke tubers were really pretty small–1-4″ long, maybe a 1 1/2″ around at most. So I cut off the icky parts and put them in some parchment paper like I would a potato and then into the crockpot with half an inch of water at the bottom. A day later, they look like this:

  

Well, er, if you know anything about sunchokes, you know that they aren’t normally black. It seems they oxidized. I don’t know if the oxidation is necessary for what happened next, but after I thought, “oh no! They’re ruined!”  I tasted one. 

They taste like sweet potatoes. 

A little less starchy. Like cooked carrot with the sweetness of sweet potato. 

All that inulin gets converted to fructose. 

Darkening aside, this method apparently works. They’re tasty, exotic, nutritious winter food with minimal effort or care. 

Next year, I’m going to put them in 20 gal bins instead of buckets. 

I’m planning on experimenting with adding chufa as a ground cover (maybe with fenugreek or cilantro) and maybe putting in some scarlet runner beans or groundnut to wind around the sunchoke stalks and make pretty flowers. I figure if you have to empty a 20 bin of dirt, you might as well make it worth your while.  

Hopefully, more space will mean better water retention and bigger tubers. Though, like I said: so far so good. And despite more than a handful of little blackened sunchokes, no complaints from my gut. I’ll also try coating them in oil or giving them a little acid to prevent oxidation. We’ll see how they do. 

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