The old Moroccan man's eyes light up when I point at the tall, hairy stems with coarse leaves and tiny yellow sunflowers in his garden patch. I'm in the Netherlands and visiting my mother's garden plot.
In Amsterdam, where space is limited, many people have plots in garden subdivisions.
The man is a neighbor who grows Jerusalem artichokes for the farmers' market.
"Yes! Aardperen!" he says, pleasantly surprised that I know the plant. "Aardperen" translates as "earth pears" - the Dutch name for the plant that helped many Dutch people survive the last winter of World War II.
It's mid-September, and the edible roots are nowhere near ready for harvesting, but he's so excited that he starts digging nonetheless and places them in a plastic bag for me to take. I try to explain that I can't use them, because they're not ripe yet.
"I know, not ripe yet," he says, as he enthusiastically continues filling the bag. "Here you are!"
How can I refuse such enthusiasm?
I thank him, but I don't think I'll be using them. Past experience has taught me that eating the unripe roots can have a less than desirable effect on the digestive system.
The Jerusalem artichoke is a perennial sunflower native to the U.S. It's said that "Jerusalem" is a corruption of the word "girasole," meaning "sunflower," the name given by Italian settlers.
A French explorer noted that its roots taste like artichokes and so the plant became commonly known as Jerusalem artichoke. Other common names are sunchokes or sunroots.
The knobby roots, called tubers, resemble pinkish ginger roots. Each tuber grows five or six hairy stems that branch out and can reach a height of 10 feet.
Each stem grows clusters of two or three opposite, coarse, hairy leaves that alternate as you go higher up the stem.
In the summer, it bears many beautiful little yellow flowers and after the plant dies down, big clumps of tubers are ready for harvest. Look for them in fields, waste areas, roadsides or an upscale grocery store.
Their flavor is unlike anything else and often is described as sweet water chestnuts.
Tubers can be kept in the ground and dug when needed from fall to spring, improving the flavor as they get sweeter after frost.
In the fridge, they keep well for at least four months if you lay the tubers flat on a paper towel in a vented plastic bag, replacing the paper towel every month.
They're a good source of vitamins A and B, iron, thiamin, potassium and phosphorus and also contain inulin, which is said to be beneficial for diabetics.
You can use the tubers cooked, boiled, steamed, baked, peeled or unpeeled, or raw.
They also make a wonderful pie! Let me share with you this wonderful recipe by Euell Gibbons, a famous forager and author of the book "Stalking the Wild Asparagus."
Coming in September: In awe of autumn olives.