For the last few years, my wife and I have been experimenting with exotic vegetables. I grow 'em, she cooks 'em, we eat 'em (sometimes). The root vegetables that we have been growing include taro, yuca, Jerusalem artichokes, yams, gobo and jicama.
Jerusalem Artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus) are also called sunchokes and are grown commercially in California and other areas. It is a Native American vegetable grown in Europe as well as the United States. The name 'Helianthus' comes from the Greek 'helios' (sun) and 'anthos' (flower) which suggests that is in sunflower genus and, indeed, that is the case. 'Tuberosus' applies to the roots which are, of course, tuberous.
The plant has pretty yellow flowers like small sunflowers and will put down roots and produce delicious tubers just about anywhere you plant them. The tubers are occasionally found in the supermarkets or may be ordered from one of several seed companies, such as Burpee. We plant the tubers in the early spring to grow through the summer to be harvested in the fall. Any that are missed or purposely left in the ground will over-winter and sprout in the spring.
The tubers are most often lumpy and bulbous but the snow white flesh is extremely crisp like water chestnuts. The taste is sweet and fresh with undertones of artichoke hearts. Raw chokes have a crisp, crunchy texture that makes them perfect for creamy dips and sauces. They add crunch and flavour to raw vegetable salads. As simple hot vegetables, steam chokes for 8 to 12 minutes and serve hot with salt and pepper, melted butter or hollandaise sauce. Whole tubers baked with a roast are a delicious alternative to potatoes, or serve them au gratin or with a cream sauce. We find that they cook very rapidly and turn to mush if overcooked. Also, we find that the tubers need to be washed meticulously because of their knobby shape. We never peel the tubers before cooking but sometimes we do after cooking. Chokes are moderately low in calories but especially rich in iron. We have several recipes for those who might be interested.
Yuca (Manihot esculenta) is also called cassava, manioc or tapioca. The yuca plant will grow up to 6 or 8' tall and resembles marijuana with its lobed palmate leaf The plant is native to South and Central America and has been adopted by the Spanish people as a major source of starch. It is now called cultivated throughout the tropics, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, the South Pacific and Florida.
The plant is a relative of the poinsettia and produces roots that are long, narrow and tapering. Only the root is eaten and it must be cooked to destroy the poisonous prussic acid. The root is enclosed in a thick peeling which is relatively easy to remove if you know how. Short sections of the root may be incised laterally, allowing one to unwrap the peeling. There is also a central fibrous cord which must be removed. Yuca is used in Central and South America in stews and soups and ground to a meal used in bread and dumplings. Also, the starchy root is treated to produce our tapioca pudding.
We usually eat yuca in one of two ways, either boiled and served hot with butter and salt, or grated and used in potato pancakes to replace the potatoes. We find that yuca makes better potato pancakes than potatoes. Yuca is high in calories and is a good source of iron, niacin and calcium.
Editor's note: there is another edible root with the common name of 'Yucca'. This Yucca belongs to a genus of perennial shrubs and trees in the agave family, Agavaceae, native to the hot and dry (arid) parts of North America, Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.
Taro (Colocasia esculenta) is also called dasheen or malanga. The plant looks like an elephant ear and should not be grown in the same yard with elephant ear or caladiums because there is the possibility of confusion. Taro is a member of the Arum family which also includes philodendrons and dieffenbachia. It is an Old World vegetable, probably originating in the East Indies. It is grown throughout the Pacific Islands, the Orient, the Caribbean, North Africa and South and Central America.
Taro is made into pureed soups, souffles, stews, chips and fritters. It can usually be found in Latin American and Oriental markets and in some supermarkets. We usually use them as a substitute for potatoes, boiled with butter and salt, or in stews and in soups. We also fry it as French fries, which are better tasting than French fried potatoes. Taro should always be cooked before being eaten as it contains an acrid juice that will irritate the membranes of the mouth and throat if you make the mistake of eating it raw. Taro needs to be peeled deeply to remove the skin and any discoloured spots and placed immediately in cold water to prevent discolouration. Taro is an excellent source of potassium, iron and fibre. It is also very low in sodium. Likewise, we have some good recipes for taro.
DATE: August 1997
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