Until a few generations ago in most cultures, food stores got low this time of year. Newfoundlanders still refer to the long and hungry month of March; further south the Cherokee word for February is kagali, or the Hungry Moon. To see us through, Barnstable gardener Dave Scandurra recommends Jerusalem artichokes. He first told me about the roots this fall.
“Here we have a big old patch of Jerusalem artichokes, also people call them sunchokes, or we call them j chokes. They’re basically sunflowers so the Healianthus genus, is the same genus as sunflowers, this is Healianthus tuberosis. So basically they get really tall, flower really late, so they’re in peak flower right now, they’re a beautiful ornamental plant, but the best part about them is they have these beautiful edible starchy tuberous roots.”
The roots look kind of like ginger or turmeric, but white on the inside instead of orange or yellow. And Dave says, they’re actually best to dig up and eat right now:
“We generally advise harvesting actually after the winter because if you harvest it in the fall the roots will, the tubers are a little bit too starchy but if you let it go through a winter—after the winter the starches convert to sugars and it becomes a little tastier, sweeter, and also easier to digest.”
Apparently because they can be hard to digest, Jerusalem artichokes have a nickname.
“People call ‘em Fartichokes!”
The gas problems come from an unusual carbohydrate called inulin. It makes the roots sweet and delicious—“like a crunchy apple from the dirt” my chef friend Michael says—but also somewhat indigestible in large doses, and there’s a lot of inulin even in a single Jerusalem artichoke. There are various methods out there for degassing the roots—some people boil them in lemon juice, which apparently converts the inulin into a more digestible sugar. Dave and his partner stumbled on another method.
“So our trick is to ferment it. You know we had a hunch so we made a salt brine with it and we just let it sit in a fermentation jar with an airlock and we honestly forgot about it we left it in the back of the kitchen and then we came back to it a few months later and Marina was going to throw it out, oh this kinda looks weird, you know I don’t know if we should keep it and I try anything, so I said oh let me try it! And I tried it. And it was the most amazing—it tasted like smoked gouda, it’s like this really interesting flavor so I got her to try it and she came around and she tried it and we’ve been feeding it to people ever since and everyone’s like— this is amazing! It taste likes pickles but with a smoked flavor and no gas!”
Other cooks report the same success with lacto-fermenting Jerusalem artichokes. Apparently the roots were common in Cape Cod gardens before European colonists arrived. On a visit to an indigenous Nauset village in 1605, Samuel de Champlain remarked on an abundance of these new-to-him roots and reported that the “they have the taste of an artichoke,” which is where some people think they got their name. Dave says one of the roots huge advantages is that they keep well in the ground all winter.
“There’s not a lot of food that you can harvest in the wild in March. But this is one, that you know the winter is past, the ground thaws out and stuff hasn’t really started growing yet but this plant that’s when you dig up the roots. Just pick a good spot where it has plenty of room to spread, where it can get tall, and enjoy it for years to come.”
Dave does warn that Jerusalem artichokes can be hard to get rid of once you plant a patch—kind of like mint. But if you’ve ever had sunchokes roasted or pureed into a soup—or if you’ve ever been hungry in March—you might agree that the plant is more blessing than curse.
LOCAL FOOD RESOURCES IN RESPONSE TO COVID-19 PANDEMIC:
MV Community Resources has a list of food access resources on their website at https://www.mvcommunityservices.org/food-resources-during-covid-19/.
Truro's Sustainable Cape is working to coordinate with local farmers who have extra produce during the pandemic. To get involved email them at email@example.com. They will also be posting other activities and updates from their "Farmer in the Schools" program online at https://www.facebook.com/sustainablecape.
More on Nantucket resources at: https://www.assistnantucket.org/
Massachusetts' Project Bread has a detailed spreadsheet on where to pick up school meals in light of school closures on their website: http://www.projectbread.org/news-and-events/news/covid-19-hunger-food.html.
Several Cape Cod restaurants are offering free meals to those in need: https://www.capecodtimes.com/news/20200317/cape-cod-restaurants-add-free-meals-to-menu-for-those-in-need.
The Massachusetts Food System Collaborative has posted an extensive list of information, ways to help, and resources for farmers on their website: https://mafoodsystem.org/resources/resourcehome/covid19/.