Sunchoke Soup Demystifies Jerusalem Artichokes

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in: Vegetables w/recipe

Sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes). Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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

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.

Cream of sunchoke soup. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

Cream of Sunchoke Soup. Credit: Clifford A. Wright

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

Serves 4

Ingredients

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

Directions

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


Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).

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Comments

Beth Elon
on: 1/21/14
the single unsatisfying quality of this delicious little tuber is its tendency to cause a very gassy stomach ... Be warned!
Julia della Croce
on: 1/21/14
I planted a few in my garden some five years ago. They're very invasive and now all over the place, so every year I have a huge crop. Beth is right about the aftereffects, but if you like artichokes as much as I do, you might get hooked on them anyway. I've used them not only soups like Clifford's recipe from Piemonte, but as ingredient is so many other things--just as I would artichokes.
Susan Karakasevic
on: 1/21/14
Nice article. It's a great tuber - we distilled them (we called them "sunroots") back in the 80's. The Spirit, we called it Pachanga, reminded everyone of tequila. Earthy, rooty... a fun flavor. Now, as an aged spirit, it has a nutty oily richness. It was the little tell tale burp that kept the French from promoting it more, I was told. Miles wanted to call it the primal spirit of America, since it was native and not a copy of any other spirit. Then he and Marko started distilling whiskey and their curiosity shifted. It still has potential. Imagine every New Years Eve, 4th of July, Thanksgiving - everyone has a shot of America's own primal sunroot spirit! Nice clip Clifford.
Clifford A. Wright
on: 1/21/14
Sunchokes are a very good source for dietary fibers and an ideal sweetener for diabetics and dieters. They are also a good source of minerals and electrolytes, especially potassium and iron, and copper. The number of people who notice the effect of a gassy stomach--which is related to one’s genetics--are few and it would be a shame to ignore this mild and all-purpose tuber because of that.
Nawal Nasrallah
on: 1/21/14
Very interesting article on an unfortunately little-used food in the Middle East. The soup looks delicious! I know of only one way to use it in Iraq: pickle it. We usually add it to winter-time pink pickles of turnip and beets (turshi shalgham). Follow this link in my website for a recipe: http://iraqicookbook.com/recipes/pickles_turshi
Clifford A. Wright
on: 1/22/14
Thanks all for your interesting comments. Sunchokes have been long popular in New England. In fact, I have a recipe for Purée of Sunchoke Soup in my book BEST SOUPS IN THE WORLD made with sunchokes and hazelnuts. It is a soup once called Palestine soup in New England, but no one knows why. Escoffier called it by that name.

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