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Grow yacon: 'It's exciting to grow something you've never grown before'

It has a surprisingly sweet, apple or melon-like taste and a juicy texture rather like a water-chestnut, writes Michael Kelly.

Michael Kelly Gardener

IT’S ALWAYS AN exciting experience to grow something you’ve never grown before. I grew the South American tuber yacon for the first time this year, thanks to some donated plants from a neighboring grower.

He gave me the plants in July and I planted them in the big polytunnel where they grew rather slowly through the summer. (In our climate, yacon will do best in a polytunnel or greenhouse but can be grown outside if you have a very sheltered, sunny spot for them).

I sort of assumed I had planted them out too late (around May or early June is the typical planting-out time). It was only as autumn approached that they really took off, and they are now well over 5 foot tall. Unlike the potato the yacon is a problem-free plant to grow – blight doesn’t affect it, and the tubers seem to be immune to slug and worm interest.

This week I harvested from under one of the plants. It’s a surreal experience. The process of harvesting them is very similar to that of harvesting potatoes – digging up a big leafy plant to find large tubers hiding beneath. But when you get them to the kitchen its path quickly diverges from the humble spud.

A sweet melon-like taste

 

First of all, you can (and should) eat yacon raw. It has a surprisingly sweet, apple or melon-like taste and a juicy texture rather like a water-chestnut. The juiciness is in fact what gives it its name – yacon means ‘water root’ and it was valued by the Incas for its thirst quenching properties.

Yacon is creating quite the buzz among nutritionists because of the unusual way it stores its carbs – as indigestible sugar (inulin) rather than starch. It is therefore highly promising as a way to introduce sweetness in to the diet of diabetics, and converted in to a syrup it’s a way for the rest of us to introduce sweetness without the calories of honey or maple syrup. Yacon is also thought to be a digestive aid, improving the health of the bacteria in the intestinal tract and colon. The formidable leaves are also nutritious and edible if cooked like chard or spinach.

Unfortunately, though it’s being grown a bit in the US, it’s not a vegetable that’s readily available to buy here. Given the excitement about it and how easy to grow it is, that might change. For now though, if you want to eat it, you have to grow it yourself.

The tubers from which you grow them can also be hard to source. But, the good news is that it’s a perennial, so if you can get your hands on the tubers or plants you will never need to buy them again.

The Basics – Growing Yacon

Similar to potatoes, yacon is grown from tubers from last year’s crop. Yacon grows two types of tubers – the knobbly ‘stem’ tubers that grow just under the surface around the stalk of the plant and look a lot like Jerusalem artichokes, and the larger, smooth edible tubers that grow outside of these. The former are the ones used for propagating the following year’s crop, while the latter are for eating.

In the late autumn (after frost), dig the whole plant carefully – the yield should be 5-10 large tubers per plant. Snap these off. They will store in a frost free shed in a box of sand and will sweeten further over time. Cut the stem of the plant back to about 10cm and store this ‘crown’ with the knobbly root tubers attached for next year’s crop, also storing in sand.

Separate the knobbly tubers in spring, making sure you have a growth point on each. Plant each one in to a large pot with good quality potting compost. Place the pot on a heated bench or sunny place in doors. Plant out in the ground in May, being careful of the weather – a good guide would be to only plant them out when you happy to plant out your tomatoes. Space 1 metre apart. Water regularly.

The plants can be slow to get going but in the summer will get to a height of 2 metres. As it’s a hungry plant, it’s a good idea to ensure the soil is good and fertile with plenty of added compost or farmyard manure.

Recipe of the Week – Yacon and Blue Cheese Salad

shutterstock_250728982 Source: Shutterstock

It’s not easy to improve upon the famously fabulous combination of walnuts and blue cheese but the addition of yacon, with its succulent sweet crunch, really lightens and freshens this deliciously different lunch. This recipe from Mark Diacono’s A Taste of the Unexpected (Quadrille, £20) serves 4 as a starter.

Ingredients

  • Small handful of shelled walnuts or pecans
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 1 medium-large yacon
  • Handful of salad leaves
  • 180g blue cheese, such as Dorset blue vinney, roquefort or gorgonzola

For the dressing

  • 1 tbsp apple balsamic vinegar
  • Pinch of flaky sea salt
  • 3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

Directions

Preheat the oven to 180C/Gas 4. Spread the walnuts or pecans out onto a baking tray and toast in the oven for 8–10 minutes, shaking halfway through, until lightly coloured – keep an eye on them to ensure they don’t burn.

Fill a bowl with water and add the lemon juice. Peel the yacon, cut into slices and toss into the lemony water to prevent them from discolouring. In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar with the salt before adding the olive oil a little at a time, whisking all the while until smooth.

In a bowl, lightly dress the salad leaves in a little of the dressing and divide between 4 plates.

Arrange the sliced yacon on top, crumble over the blue cheese, then trickle over the rest of the dressing. Scatter the nuts over the top and serve immediately.

Michael Kelly is founder of GIY and GROW HQ. 

Click here for more GIY tips and recipes.

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Michael Kelly  / Gardener

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