Know Your Ingredients
Sunchokes, Also Known As Jerusalem Artichokes
The Mysteriously Named Tuber: Tasty or a Waste of Time?
Why would you bother eating a sunchoke? Honestly, I've cooked the things and I think the greatest pleasure comes from knowing you're eating the root of a sunflower, not from any particular yumminess. Yes, the sunchoke, also known as Jerusalem artichoke, is the edible tuber of a variety of sunflower native to the United States. Very romantic, yes. Very tasty, maybe.
The tuber looks sort of like a knot of ginger root, except with thinner skin; in fact, the skin is not normally removed before cooking. Although sunchokes are usually available year-round, October through April are prime season, after the plant's flowers have died and the first frost has struck.
If you happen to have grown helianthus tuberosus this summer, now is the time to dig 'em up and eat 'em. If you're shopping at the store, pick chokes that are not bruised or soft; they should be smooth and firm. Dirt doesn't matter much. A coating of soil actually helps preserve them a little longer, so don't wash it off until you're ready to use them.
Sunchokes are edible raw or cooked. Raw, they're mild and crunchy like jicama or water chestnuts, two other comestibles that most people could easily live without. Toss raw chokes in a salad or salsa for a little extra snap. Cooked, they're sort of like potatoes but not as versatile, and frankly, not as good.
Why bother eating the damn things? Well, unlike potatoes, sunchokes' carbohydrates are not absorbed by the body. Nutritionists often recommend that diabetics take up a sunchoke habit and some studies indicate that the tubers may help the body regulate blood sugar.
So, if you're a diabetic or watching your carbs you have good reason to seek these guys out. Try this: Chop the chokes roughly and throw them in a pot with enough milk to cover. Simmer the sunchokes until tender, about 20 minutes. Drain the milk from the pan but save it. Then, put the sunchokes in a blender or food processor and purée, adding the warm milk until you achieve a consistency you like. Scrape the purée out of the blender and add as much butter as you want, followed by salt and pepper. Throw in a little horseradish if you like, or chopped bacon and chives. Use about 1 1/2 pounds for four servings.
You can cover up the mild, nutty flavor of sunchokes or you can work with it. Imagine a nice, thick soup of puréed sunchokes, topped with sautéed leeks, mushrooms and a drizzle of browned butter. How about baking sliced sunchokes and serving them alongside a pork loin? Get creative, make stuff up. Why not?
And in case you were wondering, the name Jerusalem artichoke has nothing to do with Jerusalem. The Italian name for these is girasole and the flavor is somewhat similar to plain artichoke hearts.