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Sunchoke roots aren’t picturesque, but they are tasty in a salad

There is an ornamental sunflower called Helianthus multiflorus that strikes a cheery, golden note in flower gardens across North America.

It has an edible relative in the food garden that botanists call Helianthus tuberosus but that we eaters call the Jerusalem artichoke, sunchoke or one of several other names. Like any shifty fellow with a string of aliases, it’s best kept under surveillance.

Why say that about a root that many people love to eat and that’s actually having a moment in restaurants right now?

First off, it’s native to Central America but was transplanted to Europe and found its way north to what’s now the U.S. It grows so prolifically that it can be a pest. I made the mistake of planting it in my food garden when I lived in eastern Pennsylvania — I spent the next 15 years fighting unsuccessfully to check its growth.

Its yearly crop of tubers comes fresh in the markets in September and October, so now is the time to look for the plump roots. Choose roots that are relatively smooth, so cleaning them is easier than when they are pocked with deep depressions. The peels may be brown or pinkish and are edible, but many people like to peel them to expose the ice-white flesh. If you do peel them, you’ll find the cut ends and exposed flesh will, like apples and avocados, start to brown. That’s because these roots are rich in iron. You can prevent the browning if you drop them into water acidulated with lemon juice.

By the way, they aren’t from Jerusalem. That name comes from Italian immigrants who called them sunflowers, or girasole in Italian, pronounced jeer-ah-so-lay, which was misinterpreted by English speakers as Jerusalem. And they aren’t artichokes. They got that moniker when early settlers of North America thought they tasted like globe artichokes. They don’t really. They have a mild nutty flavor and a slight sweetness.

The slight sweetness comes from the inulin content of the tubers. Inulin is a form of soluble fiber that we can’t digest, so it passes unchanged into the large intestine where the gut bacteria that make up the microbiome feed on it. Thus, inulin is a prebiotic, meaning a substance that feeds the probiotic bacteria so necessary for our health. These gut bacteria metabolize the inulin into compounds that support intestinal health.

On the other hand, inulin is made of fructose molecules linked together, and when the tubers sit around for weeks or months, the links come apart and the fructose sugars make the root taste sweeter. Diabetics, who can’t metabolize sugars, can safely ingest inulin, but not fructose, so roots fresh from the farm at this time of year are safest for those with diabetes.

Even so, the digestion of inulin in the large intestine can cause digestive problems. As 17th century English botanist John Goodyer wrote: “Which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause of filthy, loathsome, stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented.”

Jerusalem artichokes contain between 16 and 20 grams of inulin per 3 ½ ounces of root, which is about one portion. Sources say digestive problems can begin when inulin levels in the diet reach about 30 grams a day. So, true to its shifty nature, you’re flirting with flatulence when you’re eating sunchokes. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Cooking turns them to mush, so you may want to avoid that temptation. They can be made into fine pickles. But probably the tastiest way to eat them is to slice them raw into thin, crunchy rounds to sprinkle over salads.

Nutritionally, they are a good source of potassium, iron, dietary fiber, niacin, thiamine, phosphorus and copper.

This salad has flavors and textures that merge into coherence, the way an orchestra’s many instruments do. It makes an extra delicious treat for a dinner party or when friends come over for a barbecue. Serve the dressing in a cruet on the side so guests can dress the salad to their taste.

Jerusalem Artichoke and Apple Salad

Makes 6 to 8 servings

For the salad:

½ cup walnuts, coarsely chopped

4 celery stalks, peeled and thinly sliced

¼ cup celery leaves, chopped

1 small head fennel, thinly sliced lengthwise

1 cup thin slices of raw Jerusalem artichoke (sunchoke)

1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored and thinly sliced

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

For the dressing:

2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard

1 garlic clove, minced

2 teaspoons honey

Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper, to taste

6 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

Toast the chopped walnuts in a pan over medium heat just until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Don’t burn.

Reserve the chopped celery leaves.

Place the sliced celery, fennel, sunchoke and apple in cold water and stir in 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice.

In a small bowl, mix together the remaining lemon juice, mustard, garlic, honey, salt and pepper. Whisk in the olive oil. Place this dressing in a cruet.

Drain the sliced celery, fennel, sunchokes and apple and pat dry, then place in a serving bowl and toss with celery leaves and walnuts. Serve with tongs and the cruet of dressing.

Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at jeffcox@sonic.net

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