Tuesday, 16 April 2024

Foodie Freak: Sunroots




People who follow me on Twitter or friend me on Facebook will already know about this, but to tell everyone: I have recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.

What no one but those really close to me knows is that my daughter and I are big fans of the TV series “Futurama,” a sci-fi cartoon set in the year 3001. Our daily conversations are dotted with quotes from the program, and (because she chooses not to watch the show) my wife has no clue what we are talking about. “A wondrous thing happened why not?” How can she not understand that?

I mention this because I am once again growing sunroots in my garden. Years ago when I had a bigger garden I had a huge patch of them growing there. I really like them.

Sunroots are a potato-like tuber that grows underground and looks like really fat ginger. They are a great food for diabetics because sunroots store their starch in the form of inulin (a polysaccharide) and not carbohydrates. Diabetics can eat sunroots all day long without having blood sugar problems.

You might not be familiar with this vegetable because they’ve gone through a little identity crisis. For a long time sunroots went by the name “Jerusalem Artichokes” but the title just confused people since they aren’t from Jerusalem and they aren’t anything like an artichoke. They’re actually a variety of sunflower.

I personally don’t care for the new name, since to me it sounds like it was created by a marketing team of third graders. I prefer the name “sunchoke,” although I realize it doesn’t sound very appetizing. It does however remind me of the Futurama joke when they were talking about using a “smell-o-scope” to explore space …

Fry: "Hey, as long as you don't make me smell Uranus." (he laughs)

Leela: "I don't get it."

Professor: "I'm sorry, Fry, but astronomers renamed Uranus in 2620 to end that stupid joke once and for all."

Fry: "Oh. What's it called now?"

Professor: "Urectum. Here, let me locate it for you."

How can my wife not love humor like that?

The new marketing name aside, sunroots are going to be showing up more and more in America’s food baskets because not only are they good for diabetics – and we seem to be homogenizing into a nation of them (I guess I should start saying “us”) – but because they are a vegetable native to North America and grow like weeds.

Since they are native they don’t need much for special attention and are super productive which makes them cash cows for farmers. Imagine if you will, preparing a planting bed, planting the tubers and then ignoring them for months then harvesting buckets full of produce.

Sunroots are so prolific that if you want to grow them in your garden you should plant them in an out-of-the-way section in which you don’t have any intention of doing anything else, because they will reseed themselves if even the smallest of tubers is left behind. Because they are so prolific, some people consider the sunroot to be a noxious weed.

Sunroot tubers found in the grocery store will grow if planted, but many more interesting varieties are available online.

In the spring find an out-of-the-way area in your garden, work into the soil some steer manure, compost and your favorite fertilizer. Plant the tubers 3 or 4 inches deep and at least a foot apart. Mulch the area with straw, water occasionally, and watch as numerous stalks grow from each tuber.

In the fall frost will kill the tops and you can harvest the tubers as needed, leaving the extras in the ground for storage. It helps to leave at least part of the dead stalks on the plant so you can find the remaining tubers when you want them.

I’ve never tried it, but it is said that the leaves can be made into a tea that relieves the pain of Rheumatoid arthritis.

When I had my last sunroot patch I harvested so many sunroots that my family got sick of them, so I gave them to the local shelter, coworkers, even people walking down my street. The nice thing is that if you don’t want to harvest the roots you can just leave them in the ground until you want them.

I don’t have a lot of room in my garden but I’ve ordered a rare heirloom variety of sunroots to plant in my yard and hopefully I can keep it happy yet also keep it in check. The plants are huge and dense. They make a perfect wind break. They grow to be 8 to 10 feet tall and the stalks grow so thick that an you might as well consider a patch of sunroots as a fence.

They are a great organic farmer’s friend. Birds love them because the flowers contain tiny seeds and the plants provide great cover.

Sunroots were “discovered” in a tribal garden in Cape Cod by Samuel de Champlain (in 1605 ACE) who sent them to his homeland, France. He called them “Canadian Artichokes” since he thought they tasted like artichoke hearts.

A Swedish Naturalist then renamed them “Topinambour” after a cannibalistic tribe from Brazil (that’s a long, dull story) and they are still called that in France today.

They became mildly popular and traveled around Europe and eventually made their way to Italy. Since sunroots are a member of the sunflower family and produce an abundance of yellow flowers that turn to follow the sun throughout the day, the Italians called them “Girasole” meaning “turning to the sun.”

The name “Jerusalem Artichoke” is actually a mispronunciation of Girasole Articocco. Europe really embraced the sunroot as an animal feed; pigs love them.

Finally in 1620 The English Oxford dictionary makes mention of “The Artichokes of Jerusalem.”

So if the sunroot is so wonderful and easy to grow why isn’t it more popular today? People throughout history have looked at food and associated its appearance with what it can do.

For example, many foods that resemble genitals are thought of as aphrodisiacs. Sunroots are knobby and misshaped and resemble a leper’s hand, so it came to be thought that sunroots caused leprosy. There’s nothing like the threat of a disfiguring disease to whet the appetite! So sunroots were dropped off the menu like the population during the plague.

Good news, everyone! Sunroots are returning to popularity, and it’s a good thing too. They’re high in free glutamines, amino acids, iron (almost 20 percent RDA), potassium and low in calories.

Scrub them with a vegetable brush and use them raw in salads or cooked in almost anything. Boil them and toss them with butter and chives. Always try to eat them with the peel on since most of the nutrition is there.

What do they taste like? Raw, their texture is like water chestnuts or like jicama, but they’re sweeter. Cooked, they can best be described as a cross between potatoes and artichoke hearts. They are popular in France cooked as a fritter, but then they are also pickled, put in soups and salads, fried, and they have even been roasted and used as a coffee substitute. You get the idea.

The sugar (fructose) produced in one acre of sunroots could produce twice the amount of alcohol of corn or sugar beets, and in Germany they produce a spirit made from sunroots called Rossler. Some people have predicted that they could be used to produce the automobile fuel of the future.

Since I try not to keep any secrets, I’ll tell you the last thing you should know, and it’s not very flattering for the sunroot. Some people may not digest the inulin in sunroots well and this will translate into flatulence and sometimes stomach cramps. In the 18th century they were called “the windy root” and some children like to call it “fartichoke.” This doesn’t happen to everyone, but now at least you are forewarned.

A new season of “Futurama” will be starting in a few months, unless Fathers Against Rude Television stops it. How can you not love that humor?

Ross A. Christensen is an award-winning gardener and gourmet cook. He is the author of "Sushi A to Z, The Ultimate Guide" and is currently working on a new book. He has been a public speaker for many years and enjoys being involved in the community. Follow him on Twitter, http://twitter.com/Foodiefreak .

Follow Lake County News on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LakeCoNews and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Lake-County-News/143156775604?ref=mf .

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