Sunchoke, also called Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is a native North American root vegetable that is delicious raw or cooked. Except when it’s not. With this vegetable, timing is everything.
Right now, after a few frosts, sunchokes are perfect. At this time of year they’ve got a subtle sweetness that matches the earthy overtones of their flavor. Raw, they are crunchy — something like a cross between jicama and water chestnut — and great on salads. They are also great cooked. Sunchokes cook more quickly than potatoes but can be used in similar ways. And they make interesting pickles.
But before they’ve gotten the chill treatment from a couple of frosts, sunchokes sometimes have a really funky, unpleasant aftertaste. The reason is a starch called inulin. Cold weather or refrigeration turns inulin into fructose, which is why sunchokes taste sweeter after cold weather.
Another good reason to wait until sunchokes have gone through a chill is that the inulin in sunchokes can cause even more digestive gas than beans do. Fructose doesn’t have the same effect, so once the inulin is converted to fructose by cold weather, this isn’t as much of an issue.
I prefer to use the name sunchoke for this root vegetable because its other common name, Jerusalem artichoke, is confusing. It is not from Jerusalem and it is not an artichoke. Apparently a French explorer named Samuel Chaplain tried them in Cape Cod in 1605 and announced that they had a taste similar to artichokes. That explains that half of the name (I guess – personally I don’t think they taste at all like artichokes).
The theory about the other half of the name is that early settlers dubbed this plant girasole, which is Italian for “turning towards the sun.” Like its close relation the sunflower, Helianthus tuberosus flowers do indeed turn towards the sun as it moves across the sky. The theory is that girasole sounded like Jerusalem, and the latter became part of the plant’s common name.
Sunchokes can grow up to 9 feet tall. They have flowers that look like small sunflowers. In Brooklyn, they usually bloom from late summer through mid-autumn. The alternate, ovate leaves usually show signs of powdery mildew by the end of August. The stems — and to a lesser degree the leaves — are covered by coarse hairs.
The tubers, which are the part we are interested in for food, look like knobby, gnarly potatoes. Some varieties have a tinge of purple or reddish color. You sometimes have to dig as deep as a foot down to find them, but when you do there will be plenty.
This is one native plant that can be harvested fairly freely if you find a good stand of it. A hardy and quick-growing perennial, it will regrow from even a small chunk of one of its tubers left in the ground.
Sunchoke grows in several Brooklyn parks, but I also find it in vacant lots. I think that’s because squirrels are as fond of this food as I am. They hoard the tubers in their underground caches, which is the equivalent of transplanting Helianthus tuberosus to new territory.
In winter, ID sunchokes by looking for their tall stalks with the remains of flowers or seedheads, and alternate leaf scars or remains of leaves. But remember Forager’s Rule No. 1: If in doubt, leave it out. Always be 100% certain of your plant ID. If you’re new to identifying this plant, look for it in late summer and early fall when it is in bloom and easy to recognize. Come back later in the year to harvest.
If you aren’t going to forage sunchokes this winter but still want to try them, buy some at the Park Slope Food Coop or the Grand Army Plaza Greenmarket. Store sunchokes in the refrigerator and use them within two weeks. Or preserve them with this pickle recipe.
Pickled Sunchokes and Mushrooms
Makes 4 half pint jars
3 cups thoroughly cleaned, sliced sunchokes (slice them about 1/4-inch thick)
1 cup cleaned, sliced mushrooms (shiitake and maitake are especially good in this recipe)
1/2 cup water
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole mustard seeds
1 teaspoon whole allspice
Toss the sunchokes and mushrooms together with the peppercorns, mustard seeds and allspice. Pack into clean canning jars.
Bring the water, vinegar, honey and salt to a boil. As soon as the mixture reaches a boil, pour it into the filled jars. The sunchokes and mushrooms should be completely covered by the brine, but there should still be 1/2-inch head space between the surface of the food and the rims of the jars.
Screw on canning lids. At this point you can opt to store the pickles in the refrigerator, where they will keep for 3 months (they are still safe to eat after this, but the quality starts to decline). For longer (up to a year) storage at room temperature, process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.
Either way, wait a week for the flavors to develop before eating the pickles. Serve Pickled Sunchokes and Mushrooms with savory roasted meat or vegetables, or alongside curries.
Leda Meredith is the author of The Locavore’s Handbook: The Busy Person’s Guide to Eating Local on a Budget. She is the Gardening Program Coordinator for Adult Education at the New York Botanical Garden and an instructor specializing in edible and medicinal plants at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Info on her many upcoming classes and events can be found on her blog at www.ledameredith.com