By Jennifer Meehan
Do you ever feel a need to spice up your root vegetable life? Need a little excitement alongside those carrots and potatoes? You might want to consider the Jerusalem artichoke, aka, the sunchoke.
Despite the name, these tubers are neither artichokes, nor from Jerusalem. The plant that produces this root vegetable is a species of sunflower with daisy-like blossoms. Legend has it that Italian immigrants took to calling the plant Girasole (Italian for sunflower) due to its resemblance to the garden sunflowers found so frequently back home. ‘Girasole’ evolved into ‘Jerusalem,’ either intentionally to reduce confusion over the actual plant classification, or unintentionally through a cross-continental, multi-generational game of telephone.
The Jerusalem artichoke is native to eastern North America, and early European explorers reported that they were one of several plants commonly cultivated by Native Americans in the region. Sunchokes are knobby tubers, similar in appearance to ginger, similar in texture to potato, and similar in flavor to a water chestnut – with a sweet, nutty character that’s quite versatile in the kitchen.
While browsing at the Carroll Gardens Greenmarket last week, I noticed sunchokes on display at Berried Treasures Farm’s stand. I grabbed a handful and sat down for a quick chat with Berried Treasures farmer Franca Tantillo.
Franca, a Staten Island native, has been farming upstate for twenty six years. She began her career as a registered nurse, working with a doctor, Carey Reams, who was well known for his work in alternative medicine. They had a seventy-eight acre farm, where they would host guests looking to fast and cleanse. When she wasn’t working with patients, Franca would work in the fields, and that’s how she found her calling. “So,” she says, “I went into farming when farming wasn’t shi-shi.”
Her thirty-six acre farm is located in Cooks Falls, New York, in the western Catskills. Strawberries are the farm’s main claim to fame, but they also grow about seventeen varieties of potatoes. “The next big thing,” Franca told me, “…is going to be sunchokes!”
The season for sunchokes is NOW. They’re planted in April, grow underground all season, and are harvested in late September or early October. Franca plans to overwinter her sunchokes this year, so you’ll be able to find them again this spring, but now’s the time to get your freshly harvested fall sunchokes.
Franca’s favorite way to prepare the ‘chokes? Chips. “Ooooh, the chips are great!,” she raves. Thinly sliced and lightly fried, sunchokes don’t absorb much oil, nor do they have starch – the carbohydrates in sunchokes come in the form of something called inulin, rather than starch, which our bodies don’t break down into sugar, so they’re a healthier alternative than many other types of chips.
Sunchokes are very versatile. If you want crunch, they can be eaten raw or steamed – or they can be used in a similar manner to potatoes. As I headed home from the market, I thought of a delicious sunchoke dish I’d had the previous week at Williamsburg’s Masten Lake. I asked Chef Angelo Romano about the recipe. To begin, he mixes tonnato (Sicilian olive-oil packed tuna), with ricotta and garlic. He then shaves raw sunchokes onto a plate, and tops them with white balsamic vinegar, the tonnato mixture, purple tomatillos (which he gets from Brooklyn Grange), and dried sumac.
Another tasty sunchoke recipe? Try this German sunchoke salad with bacon and scallions from Cathy Erway of Not Eating Out in New York.