There are few harvesting thrills for the home vegetable gardener to equal the digging of new potatoes. Disinterring a bed of Jerusalem artichokes is one of them.
These creamy, crisp globes mature to greater than golf ball size if planted in friable soil, bearing little resemblance to the brownish packaged marbles occasionally seen in local markets at exorbitant prices.
Jerusalem artichokes do not market well because, like the farmers who grow them, they prefer to stay at home, traveling locally and quietly multiplying. Once harvested, they must be refrigerated promptly or they will become soft and inedible. However, scrubbed free of dirt and bagged in plastic, they will keep crisp for months at 40 degrees.
These tubers will grow in any kind of soil and accept any amount of neglect, for which reason they are considered a famine crop. Planted in February in a corner of the garden—ideally backed by a sunny fence and surrounded by well-trodden paths to confine (lest they take over your garden)—they will produce clusters of rough dark green leaves in March, shooting up to six feet or more by August and ultimately, if the days be sunny enough, be topped with the bright gold flowers that reveal them as members of the sunflower family, Compositae.
Cut the blossoms for a vase—as Monet did for a famous still life—so that the energy is directed to the tubers. In late fall when the stalks are brown and dry, the tubers can be dug and harvested as needed, offering a pleasant change from the ubiquitous holiday fare.
By February, little roots appear on the tuber and the cycle of life starts anew.
Like potatoes, they must be kept covered, so an occasional mulch and in very hot weather, a weekly light watering is all the care they need. And even if one thinks one has dug out the entire bed, it will soon show a profusion of new leaves and be productive for years.
Jerusalem artichokes contain inulin, a sugar said to be safe for diabetics. To prepare, cut off the stem and scrape off the thin skin under cold water. They can be sliced raw to add crunch to salads, or added to stews. They make a fine cream soup and are likely to show up on the menu of top restaurants as a puree. An example of their deliciousness and versatility is given in the recipe below. Their delicate, nutty flavor is exchanged with that of the tomato, enhancing both and adding body to the sauce.