Many cooks overlook the unusual vegetable called the Jerusalem artichoke, also known as the sunchoke.
The best part of the sunchoke is the tuberous rhizomes that can be eaten raw or cooked. The tuber looks like a knobby potato and tastes similar to artichoke heart. The plant can grow 6 feet high in a sunny and dry location.
A word tour of name confusion
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Its Latin binomial is Helianthus tuberosus L., indicating that it is a tuber related to the sunflower.
The sunchoke’s name in various languages indicates the confusion about its origins. In Arabic it is known as tirfās, ṭarṭūfa, kamāiyya balād al-āmrīk. This name combines the words for truffles and country potato of America. In French, Italian and Spanish it is known as topinambur, the name of a Brazilian tribe that has nothing to do with the origin of the plant. In English and Turkish, the sunchoke is the Jerusalem artichoke and yerelması, the Jerusalem, which brings us to how it got that name as the plant has nothing to do with either Jerusalem or artichokes.
The sunchoke is native to Canada and portions of the eastern United States. It first entered Italy in 1617 and was grown in the Farnese garden in Rome with the name girasole articiocco (sunflower artichoke).
The English name “Jerusalem” has long been claimed to be a corruption of the Italian word girasole, sunflower, but agricultural historian Redcliffe Salaman pointed out that the name “Jerusalem” was used to refer to Jerusalem artichokes before girasole. He argues that “Jerusalem” is a corruption of Terneuzen, a town in Holland from where the sunchoke was first introduced to England.
The sunchoke was first introduced to France from Canada no earlier than 1607 by lawyer and historian Marc Lescarbot and explorer Samuel de Champlain. It entered Provence about the same time as it did Italy and recipes are rarely found for sunchokes anywhere else in the Mediterranean but these two locales.
How to choose and store sunchokes
When buying, storing and preparing the sunchoke for cooking, look for firm tubers with unblemished skin. Choose the tubers that are the least knobby and make sure there are no spongy spots.
Store them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator crisper drawer where they will keep for two weeks. They go well with goose and other meat. Because the tubers can turn black when cooking, do not use an aluminum pan. A delightful way to use sunchokes is in soups such as this one from the Piedmont region of Italy.
Cream of Sunchoke Soup
2 ounces (½ stick) unsalted butter, divided
8 slices of French baguette
6 sunchokes (about 1 pound), peeled and thinly sliced
2 large onions, chopped
1 quart chicken or vegetable broth (preferably homemade)
½ cup heavy cream
2 teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. In a large sauté pan, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter over medium heat and then cook the bread slices until golden on both sides, about 5 minutes. Set aside.
2. In a large saucepan, melt the remaining butter over medium heat and add the sunchokes and onions, stirring them and cooking until softened, about 15 minutes.
3. Add the broth and bring to a boil over high heat for 15 minutes, then remove from the heat.
4. Pass the soup through a food mill and transfer to a saucepan.
5. Bring to a boil and add the cream. Once it’s hot, season with salt and pepper and serve with the bread.
Top photo: Sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes). Credit: Clifford A. Wright