Megan Saynisch is a freelance writer, cook, gardener and the creator of Brooklynfarmhouse.com.
This past weekend, I worked in my community garden in Brooklyn to clean up some of the damage caused by Hurricane Sandy and to prepare the growing beds for the coming winter. In a small, overlooked area of the garden, giant sunflowers had grown, some at least nine feet tall, with dark green foliage topped by clusters of sunny yellow flowers that drew bees by the dozen. As summer gave way to fall, the flowers had dropped off and the leaves started to brown; most of the plants were bent over in two from the winds of the storm.
Volunteers helped cut the plants down, and then another gardener started digging underneath the stalks. The sunflowers that had never failed to cheer me up in the summer had produced another gift -- a pile of (aptly) named sunchokes. The little knobby nuggets flummoxed most of the gardeners who gathered around - most of them had never eaten a sunchoke and were unsure of what to do with them. I assured them that sunchokes are a versatile veggie, as delicious raw as as they are cooked.
A Brief History
Sunchokes, the vegetable formerly known as "Jerusalem artichokes," are the tuberous roots of a native North American plant in the sunflower family -- neither from Jerusalem nor related to artichokes -- originally cultivated by Native Americans. The Oxford Companion to Food says that the plant was noted in writing as early as 1603, when Samuel de Champlain (the same guy Lake Champlain is named after) described the root as tasting "like an artichoke," ostensibly starting the naming confusion that has plagued the vegetable since its European debut.
Things get even weirder, etymologically speaking, because in much of Europe, the vegetable is known as topinambour (or some variation), a corruption of the name of an indigenous Brazilian tribe that was on "tour" (I won't even comment on that one) in France at the same time the sunchoke was introduced (in 1613). "Jerusalem" is thought to either be a corruption of girasole -- Italian for sunflower -- or "Terneuzen", a Dutch town from where the root was first brought to England. These linguistic misunderstandings led marketers to rename the vegetable to the (sort-of) more pleasing "sunchoke" in the 1960s. (Though I question the marketing prowess of anyone naming a foodstuff with the word "choke" in it. I'm just saying.)
Sunchokes enjoyed much popularity in Europe after their introduction, until they started developing a reputation for causing excessive amounts of flatulence.
This actually has some basis in reality, as sunchokes contain a great deal of inulin, which does cause gas and bloating when eaten in excess.
Sunchokes are adapted to colder climates, and taste better when harvested after the first frost.
The bulk of sunchokes grown in Germany go toward the production of a liqueur called Topinambur, made from sunchokes and a mix of herbs.
Sunchoke plants are considered weeds in some part of the country and can be quite invasive if left unchecked.
Cultivation & Environmental Impact
Although sunchokes are native to the US, they are not commonly cultivated here for food; the vegetable enjoys much more popularity in France and other European countries. Sunchokes don't even rank on the Environmental Working Group's Shopper's Guide to Pesticides in Produce (*check out our vegetable rule of thumb.) However, the roots are used for the industrial production of inulin, employed more and more frequently in processed foods as a source of dietary fiber and as a substitute for sugar and other fillers. It's unclear from my research whether sunchokes are monocropped in the US, or if other industrial agricultural practices (like heavy fertilizer and pesticide use) are used, but I think it is safe to say that if you're purchasing sunchokes from a local farmer that the plant's environmental impact is fairly low.
Sunchokes are also touted as a possibility for ethanol production, for which the root has a long and rather sordid history: in the early 1980s, there was a pyramid scheme that involved selling sunchoke planting stock for ethanol production, even though no actual market for the plant existed. Many farmers went bankrupt, and the scam's perpetrators ended up in prison. (If this scandal piques your interest, there is a whole book about it.)
In the US, sunchokes are in season from late fall through early spring.
Sunchokes are a great source of iron, potassium and thiamin. They are also low in calories and high in fiber. Inulin, the primary carbohydrate in sunchokes, minimally affects blood sugar and is touted as a diabetic-friendly carb.
What to Look For
A couple of different cultivars of sunchokes are readily available in the US. Some varieties have more knobbly bits, while others are smoother. Some varieties are elongated like fingerling potatoes. The veggie's skin is usually light brown to creamy in color, but may also be pink or reddish, and the interior may be white, cream-colored, tan or even purple. When choosing sunchokes, select examples that are firm to the touch with no black spots or blemishes -- the older the sunchoke, the sponger they get. Spongy is not a yummy sunchoke quality.
What to Do with It
Sunchokes will keep in the produce drawer of the refrigerator for 2-3 weeks, though I swear I've kept them for even longer.
The sweet-nutty-crunchy qualities of sunchokes can be put to good use in an amazing number of ways. My favorite way to eat them is raw -- shaved thinly as in this salad, with a drizzle of olive oil and a blanket of Parmigiano-Reggiano. (But that's a little too easy -- what vegetable doesn't taste good like that?) When I prepare sunchokes raw, I usually leave the skin on, but for cooked preparations you may consider removing the skin with a swivel-blade peeler or paring knife (the skin tends to toughen when cooked). Raw sunchokes also make nice toss-ins to salads, and are crunchy enough to be made into slaw. They can be sliced and roasted like potatoes, sautéed or made into a delicious gratin. The French are famous for a creamy sunchoke soup, but the tuber is also good simply pureed (peel first) and mixed with cream and butter, like mashed potatoes.
Sunchokes oxidize when exposed to air, just like apples or potatoes. To prevent this, toss with lemon juice before cooking. There are a bunch of other fascinating tips for preparing sunchokes here -- one of my favorites is a pointer about preventing sunchokes from turning gray when pureed or made into soup (their high iron content causes this to happen): add a pinch of cream of tartar or an acidic liquid (like lemon juice) to the sunchoke cooking water.
This recipe is so simple I hesitate to even call it a recipe -- but either way, the idea is Marcella Hazan's, from her awesome book, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. These sunchoke chips are especially good as a garnish or side for scallops or fish, but are delicious alongside any protein.
What You'll Need
1 lb. sunchokes, peeled and sliced very thinly (use a mandoline if you have one, but a very sharp knife will do)
Vegetable oil, for frying
1. Wash the sunchoke slices in several changes of cold water. Pat thoroughly dry.
2. In a large skillet, pour enough of the vegetable oil so that it comes about 1/4 inch up the sides of the pan. Turn the heat to high. When the oil is hot (but not smoking), gently add the sunchoke slices. Don't crowd the pan. (You'll have to do this in batches.)
3. When they brown on one side, turn them over and fry on the other side.
4. Transfer with a slotted spoon to a large plate or platter lined with paper towels. Sprinkle with salt.
5. Repeat with the remaining sunchoke slices. Serve hot.
Makes 4 servings.
Stretching Your Fresh Food Dollar Though Preservation
Sunchokes can be pickled -- this recipe with tumeric and mustard seeds looks especially delicious. They can be frozen, too, but note that freezing sunchokes causes them to become mushy and may cause them to discolor, as well. To freeze: slice sunchokes or cut into chunks, blanch for 2-3 minutes in boiling water, plunge into an ice bath, then freeze on cookie sheets. Once frozen, transfer to plastic bags and freeze.
(*Vegetable rule of thumb: We think that first and foremost, in terms of nutrition, people should eat lots of fruits and vegetables whether they are organic or not. The EWG's guide is a handy list, but we will point out here that the impacts of pesticides are not limited to your ingestion of them -- agricultural chemicals also affect farmworkers and local waterways, both good reasons to buy organic, even those vegetables that carry a light pesticide load. Also, it has been demonstrated that produce grown by small-scale farmers, even those who are not certified organic, tends to have a lighter pesticide load than its industrially-produced counterpart, owing to industry's tendency toward large monocrops.)