Getting to the root

Getting to the root

Some of my favorite fall foods are the various tubers and taproots we can easily cultivate or buy locally. Aside from the more typical starchy staples — carrots, turnips, parsnips, yams and squash — I also look forward to sunchokes and burdock.

Sunchokes, also called Jerusalem artichokes, are members of the sunflower family. Above the ground, they look like sunflowers with multiple flowering tops. For eating purposes, however, underground is where their value lies.

Sunchokes bear a knobby rootlet that somewhat resembles a potato, though they're typically smaller and quite mottled. While potatoes are healthful and contain some nutrients, sunchokes possess unusual sugars that don't have potatoes' propensity for elevating our blood sugar, making them better for diabetics. Moreover, they taste sweeter than potatoes, and their sugars help nourish flora — beneficial microorganisms known as probiotics — that populate the gut.

Sunchokes are most available in the cooler months when the plant is done flowering. They're a little difficult to find but are available at some natural-food stores and farmers markets in the Rogue Valley. Prepare them by chopping into bite-sized chunks, tossing with olive oil and other root veggies and roasting in a pan. They're great in soups and purees with added herbs. They also can be chopped or grated and added to salads.

Burdock is a naturalized plant that grows wild in the Rogue Valley and in various parts of the country. In fertile soils, it can grow deep roots. It has giant basal leaves its first year, approaching the size of elephant ears in some cases. I've seen some sizable ones along the Bear Creek Greenway near Interstate 5 and along Wagner Creek.

Burdock seeds are used in traditional Chinese medicine — mostly for dry, crusty skin conditions — and the flowers have a Velcro-like tendency to cling to our clothes. If you see flowers and a stalk on burdock, you're either too early or too late for the root. Like sunchokes, when the aerial parts are prominent, the root is not going to be worth digging. Get it in the spring or fall, before or after the plant has bolted.

Burdock is high in various nutrients and, like sunchokes, contains sugars commonly referred to as "prebiotics." Prebiotic sugars nourish probiotic bacteria. Burdock is an example of a medicinal food. Commonly eaten in Asian soups and stir-frys, the root has mild detoxifying properties, cleansing the blood and protecting the liver.

Burdock and sunchokes have a long culinary history and deserve a wider foothold in the modern diet. Dig in and enjoy these unusual foods, and they may yet take root in your seasonal menus.

Michael Altman is a nutritionist at Ventana Wellness and the Centre for Natural Healing. He teaches at Southern Oregon University and College of the Siskiyous. E-mail him at michael@ventanawellness.com.

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