It's called a Jerusalem artichoke ... but it's not an artichoke, and it isn't native to the Middle East. Helianthus tuberosus is a native American sunflower, a hardy perennial that prefers cool climates and grows well in our poor mountain soil. In fact, the Virginia Tech weed identification guide calls it "a weed of pastures, hayfields and roadsides." But this weed that stores the sun's summer rays in its luscious roots is beautiful, nutritious and tasty.
Originally used for food by American Indian hunter-and-gatherer societies, they were introduced to Europe by the French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who found them growing in 1605 among the Abenaki tribe on Cape Cod. They quickly made their way to France and by 1609 were mentioned in "Histoire de la Nouvelle France." There, they became known as topinambours, the French word for tuber. They made their way to Italy, and the Italian name, girasol, which means following the sun, became corrupted in English as Jerusalem. These delightful plants quickly traveled across Europe and are listed as "Artichocks of Jerusalem" in a 1620 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. However, they did not become as popular as the potato or tomato, perhaps because John Goodyer, an early horticulturalist, described them as "a meat more fit for swine, than men," as they cause flatulence for some. An old wives' tale that linked the bulbous tubers to leprosy because they resembled deformed fingers also contributed to the disfavor of the sunchoke.
That's why many consumers are still unfamiliar with the knobby root vegetable reminiscent of ginger in the produce aisle, but commercial growth is increasing and supermarkets are beginning to stock them. Less starchy than potatoes, sunchokes have a crisp, crunchy texture, a little like a water chestnut, and a sweet, nutty flavor. They're great raw in salads, but roasting increases their sweetness.
Jerusalem artichoke, or sunchoke
(Photo — Yvona Fast)
Today this delicious, healthy vegetable is experiencing a comeback. Home gardeners find it easy to grow and enjoy the blossoms as well as the crisp, yummy tubers. At Sunday's Rutabaga Festival in Keene, sunchokes will take their place alongside other root vegetables like beets, carrots, celery root, turnips and, of course, rutabagas.
Low in calories and sodium, fat and cholesterol free, sunchokes are recommended for those with Type 2 diabetes because they contain inulin, a carbohydrate that breaks down slowly into fructose rather than glucose, and thus does not cause blood sugar to rise rapidly as do potatoes, rice or pasta. Inulin also promotes intestinal lactobacilli, probiotic bacteria that aid digestion and help with absorption of calcium and magnesium. One serving of sunchokes contains more iron than a hamburger. They're also high in potassium, vitamin C and thiamin, and contain phosphorus, magnesium, niacin, vitamin B6 and riboflavin.
At the market, look for sunchokes that are firm, moist and smooth, without sprouting, green spots or blotches. Often they will come wrapped in cellophane, so they may be hard to inspect.
To prepare, scrub clean with a vegetable brush. You can cut them into crudites to eat with dip, or julienne for a salad. They can be roasted, baked, steamed, stir-fried or cooked in the microwave. They pair well with nuts, other root vegetables like carrots or sweet potatoes, and herbs like sage, marjoram, parsley, basil and garlic. They're great added to salads of all types: green salads, slaws, fruit salads, pasta, rice or potato salads, or even chicken, turkey or ham salad.
Sunchoke, Carrot and Apple salad
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon honey
2 teaspoons olive oil
1 cup shredded sunchokes
1 cup shredded carrots
1 apple, cored and diced
1 rib celery, sliced thin
1 tablespoon raisins
2 tablespoons chopped walnuts or pecans
Fresh salad greens
Whisk together dressing ingredients in bottom of salad bowl. Grate chokes and carrots directly into the dressing, stirring as you go. Add diced apple, raisins, celery and nuts. Stir to combine. Serve over a bed of fresh greens.
Roasted Sunchokes, Potatoes and Sausage
1/2 pound Jerusalem artichokes (also called sunchokes), scrubbed
1 large potato, scrubbed and cubed into 1-inch cubes
1 or 2 carrots, scrubbed and sliced in 1-inch lengths
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 pound breakfast sausage
1 large onion
1 or 2 cloves garlic
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Cut vegetables into 1-inch cubes. Place in medium bowl. Add oil and toss. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and toss to coat. Transfer to rimmed baking sheet. Dot with butter. Roast until tender and golden brown, turning occasionally, about 25 to 40 minutes.
Place sausage in large skillet and cook on low to render fat. Peel and dice onions and garlic, add, and cook everything together on low heat, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes.
To serve, combine vegetables and sausage, and serve hot. You can also stir roasted veggies and cooked sausage into cooked pasta or grains, and season with herbs. Or use to top a plate of fresh, seasoned greens.
Yvona Fast lives in Lake Clear and has two passions: cooking and writing. She can be reached at www.wordsaremyworld.com.