Cooking Fresh with Jerusalem Artichokes
By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
JERUSALEM ARTICHOKES, sunchokes, sun roots, Canada potatoes, topinambour, fartichokes—they go by many names, but they’re all the same gnarly little tuber of the Helianthus tuberosus plant, a member of the sunflower family native to eastern North America. I’ve always wondered why Jerusalem artichokes have so many names, but I honestly never cared enough to find out why until now.
Sure, their flavor and texture are nice enough: mild, slightly sweet and crunchy when raw, and nutty, almost artichoke-heart-like and smooth-textured when cooked. Other than that, though, they’re really not very impressive: small and knobby, with dull tan or red skin and a white interior that quickly turns brown through oxidation when cut. Plus they’ve got a reputation for being hard to digest.
I’ve always been fond of freaky, underdog vegetables, so you’d think Jerusalem artichokes would be a natural pick for me to love. Instead, I’ve always thought of them as more mediocre and meticulous than attractively maligned and misunderstood. However, when I needed to pick a vegetable to write about for this season’s column, my husband, mortified by my summer 2015 article about asparagus (and its aroma upon “elimination”), kiddingly suggested, “If you’re so interested in writing about bodily functions, maybe you should pick fartichokes.”
Challenge accepted, sir.
Thankfully, it turns out that Jerusalem artichokes, sunchokes—whatever you want to call them—are pretty darned interesting!
They’re a perennial, meaning they come back year after year. They can grow more than 9 feet tall and are crowned by pretty little yellow sunflowers in August. The plants store their energy in the tubers, which survive in the ground over winter and sprout new growth in spring (unless we dig them up and eat them, of course).
The coolest thing about sunchokes is that they’re currently the only cultivated vegetable that’s native to our part of the world—from the Midwest all the way to the East Coast. High in protein and easy to harvest and store, they were an important food source for many northern Native American tribes, both as a wild-crafted tuber and as a cultivated crop. Native peoples called Jerusalem artichokes “sun roots,” since as members of the sunflower family, their flowers follow the movement of the sun.
The first European to take notice of the plant was Samuel de Champlain, the 17th century French explorer who was famous for founding Quebec City and exploring what is now southeastern Canada, the Great Lakes and the northeasterm United States. Champlain was a big deal, with tons of things named after him—Lake Champlain in Vermont/New York, a mountain, a provincial park, towns, bridges, colleges and schools in Canada and the U.S.—yet he was impressed enough with the humble “sun roots” cultivated by Cape Cod Native Americans in 1606 to bring some home to France. It was Champlain who first named them “artichokes,” though he knew they were a type of sunflower, because their flavor when cooked reminded him of the globe artichokes he grew up eating in France.
Europeans should’ve stuck with the Native American name, sun roots, but instead they came up with a couple silly names. At first, the Italians had the right idea by calling them girasoles—their word for sunflower—but the lazy English thought girasole sounded like “Jerusalem” and agreed with the French that they tasted kind of like artichokes. Hence, “Jerusalem Artichoke,” even though they have nothing whatsoever to do with the Middle East, and we already know they aren’t related to artichokes.
The origin of their name across continental Europe is even more bizarre. Europeans started calling them les topinambours in the early 17th century, shortly after European farmers started cultivating them. Apparently, the tubers were part of a tour of New World novelties at the Vatican, along with representatives of a Brazilian native tribe called the Tupinambá. Although the North American tuber and the South American tribe also had nothing to do with each other, they were randomly associated, and the new name stuck.
Jerusalem artichokes eventually fell out of favor and were mainly relegated to animal feed in both England and the colonies, but continental Europeans continued to love their topinambours, especially in French cuisine and as booze—they can be made into wine, beer or even brandy (90 percent of Germany’s topinambour crop gets distilled as a brandy called “Topi” or “Rossler”).
They were all but forgotten here in the U.S. until a California produce wholesaler named Frieda Caplan decided to start selling them in the 1960s and re-branded them as “sunchokes.” Now the little root has returned to its home country, and you can find them in fine restaurants, gourmet grocers, farmers markets and CSA boxes all over the United States.
Harmony Valley Farm outside of Viroqua has been growing sunchokes for decades, possibly more than any other area vegetable farm—last year they grew more than two acres of them, which resulted in a harvest of 39,000 pounds! You can find their sunchokes from fall through spring in their CSA boxes, at their Dane County Farmers’ Market stand, and at food co-ops and restaurants in Madison and Viroqua. Andrea Yoder, co-owner of Harmony Valley, says that their CSA members have mixed reactions to sunchokes: some love them and some hate them, owing to the reason behind their newest and most infamous nickname, the “fartichoke.”
Sunchokes are very high in the carbohydrate inulin, a type of fiber that human digestive enzymes can’t break down like starchy carbohydrates. Instead, the inulin travels to our colons, where it is gobbled up by beneficial bifidobacteria. Unfortunately, the byproduct of the bifidobacteria’s inulin feast is often a lot of gas. However, these “good” bacteria thrive on inulin, and for this reason, sunchokes are considered “prebiotics,” meaning that they support the beneficial bacteria our bodies already contain (rather than infusing us with new bacteria, like probiotics do). When well-fed, these beneficial bacteria can improve digestion, fight off bad bacteria, improve our calcium absorption, and supposedly even reduce triglycerides in our blood and fight cancer.
Not everyone has a violent reaction to eating sunchokes, but if you do, try eating small amounts and only cooked ones—steamed, boiled, or par-boiled and then roasted. If your bifidobacteria are more restrained, then by all means, eat sunchokes with abandon! There’s really no need to peel them, but make sure to wash and scrub them well.
Try them sliced thin on salads, grated into slaws, or chopped up and added to dips. You can slice or matchstick them to add to stir-fries like you would water chestnuts. You can roast them whole or in chunks, alone or with other root vegetables. They’re delicious paired with bacon, thyme, sage, cream, and aged or smoked cheeses.
For a velvety smooth puree that makes an amazing base for roasted vegetables, meat or fish, sauté shallots and garlic in butter, then add cut up sunchokes and cover with vegetable or chicken stock and some cream and simmer until just tender. Then puree and add salt and pepper to taste.
Whatever their name, think of Jerusalem artichokes as a piece of local history that you can eat!
Try jerusalem artichokes, or sunchokes, as we prefer to call them, in these tasty recipes:
Green Dip with Sunchokes (pictured in header image)