The Jerusalem artichoke has no relatives in the artichoke family but is actually a member of the sunflower family. A native of North America, it grew in the wild along the eastern seaboard from Georgia to Nova Scotia. The explorer Samuel de Champlain first encountered sunchokes growing in an American Indian vegetable garden in Cape Cod, Massachusetts in 1605. In his opinion they tasted like artichokes, a name that he carried back to France. The American Indians called them sun roots and introduced these perennial tubers to the pilgrims who adopted them as a staple food.
Our detectives continued their search. Apparently the French began growing these tubers successfully because they were sold by Parisian street vendors who named them topinambours, the French word for tuber. Six Brazillian Indians from the Topinambours tribe were brought back to the curious French in 1613 after an expedition, and the street hawkers adopted this name for their prized tubers from the Americas.
There is a record of Champlain sending some of the tubers to his native France after tasting them a second time in Canada. It's very likely he sent them home from Massachusetts, too, because a book called Histoire de la Nouvelle France ,published in 1609, makes mention of this vegetable before Champlain's exploration in Canada.
Our sleuths have surmised that when Jerusalem artichokes arrived in Italy sometime before 1633, the Italian word for sunflower, "girasole" which means "turning to the sun," was somehow later corrupted into the word "Jerusalem." This corruption combined with Champlain's likening the taste of the vegetable to an artichoke brings our mystery to a close.
Jerusalem artichokes made their way across Europe, reaching England in 1617 and Germany by 1632. An early edition of the Oxford English Dictionary mentioned "Artichocks of Jerusalem" in 1620.
As in all trends, there is a rise in popularity, and then a fall into obscurity. France readily accepted the Jerusalem artichoke in the early 1600s, possibly because of the name artichoke. The potato, on the other hand, was regarded with suspicion and rejected. When the potato was finally accepted, the Jerusalem artichoke fell into rejection because people thought it caused leprosy. This belief was attributed to the irregular shape and brown mottled skin that resembled the deformed fingers of those with leprosy.
In times of desperation, the Jerusalem artichoke became sustenance. It was during a famine that occurred throughout Europe in 1772 that the Jerusalem artichoke could be quickly and easily grown to provide nourishment. During World War II the tubers regained some recognition in several countries because they were a food that could be bought without a ration card. The explorers Lewis and Clark were fortified by Jerusalem artichokes during a time when it was difficult to find ample food on their expedition.
The Jerusalem artichoke is a tuber that grows underground like the potato but is harder to harvest because the tubers cling to the roots and become entwined. Cultivated varieties of sunchokes grow in clumps close to the main root or rhizome while wild ones grow at the end of root. Like their family members of sunflowers, they can grow from 3 to 12 feet high with large leaves and flowers that are 1 1/2 to 3 inches in diameter. They grow well in almost all soil with the exception of very heavy clay soil, but do best in alkaline soil.
Sunchokes are easy to grow from tubers that weigh about 2 oz. and have 2 or 3 sprouts emerging. Plant them deep, about 3 to 4 inches underground. They do best when planted in little hills for better water retention and to make harvesting easier. Plant them in the spring through early summer, and harvest them fall through early winter. Be aware that any tubers left in the ground that were not harvested will reseed themselves. Many farmers are reluctant to go into heavy production of the sunchokes because of their ability to take over and become a serious weed problem.
Sunchokes are often called a starchy plant, but the starch is in the form of inulin, a polysaccharide from which fructose can be produced. Because this starch, or inulin, is not easily digestible by everyone, it may be best to introduce the vegetable in small amounts. John Goodyer, one of England's pioneer planters of the early 1600's wrote,
"But in my judgement, which way soever they be drest and eaten they stir up and cause a filthie loathesome stinking winde with the bodie, thereby causing the belly to bee much pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine, than men."
We find their delicate sweetness and nutty flavor so refreshing we include them in our repertoire of vegetables regularly. They have a crispness that resembles water chestnuts and can even stand in for water chestnuts in salads and stir fries.
Nutritionally, the sunchoke's most outstanding benefits lie in the 327 mg. of potassium for a half-cup serving. That same half-cup serving has 57 calories, 1.5. gr. protein, 1.2 gr. fiber, 10.5 mg. calcium, 10 mcg. folacin along with smaller amounts of niacin and thiamine.
SHOPPING: Jerusalem artichokes are usually packaged in plastic and found in the produce department of most supermarkets. Since they are not in great demand, it's important to examine them carefully. Fresh vegetables look plump and vibrant. Inspect carefully to avoid those that have a greenish tinge. Make sure they are not sprouting, or are shriveled or moldy.
STORAGE: Keep the tubers wrapped in plastic and refrigerate. They will keep up to two weeks, but it's always best eat them as fresh as possible for the best flavor and nutrition. Their sweetness is known to increase when refrigerated after harvesting. If you grow your own, refrigerate them for a day or two before consuming.
PREPARATION: Scrub the sunchokes clean with a vegetable brush. Since much of their nutrients are stored just under the skin, it's best not to peel them. Once cut, sunchokes discolor quickly, so it's best to cut them close to serving time, or cut and immerse them in water with lemon or vinegar to prevent oxidation. Cooking them with the skins on may cause a darkening of the skins because of their high iron content.
STIR FRY: Slice, dice, or shred and stir fry along with other fresh vegetables in a little extra virgin olive oil. They will become softened in about 4 to 6 minutes. For a tender crisp texture, stir fry about 2 to 4 minutes.
BAKED: Sunchokes can be baked whole or sliced. Toss them in a bowl with a little extra virgin olive oil and place on a baking sheet. Set the oven temperature at 375 and bake 30 to 45 minutes for whole, and 20 to 25 minutes for sliced, turning them half way through. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
STEAMED: Coarsely chop the Jerusalem artichokes and put them into a steamer basket. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Continue at high heat and steam for 5 to 8 minutes. Test for softness. Remove and season to taste or mash like potatoes.
BOILED: Sunchokes can be boiled whole or cut as desired. Bring a covered saucepan of water to a boil over high heat. Add sunchokes and boil for 10 to 15 minutes for whole, and 5 to 8 minutes for cut up. Season as desired or mash like potatoes.
As you can see, Jerusalem artichokes can be enjoyed with any meal, adding a special taste and texture to the palate. Below is a recipe that is as unique as the plant itself:
Raw sunchokes, sometimes called Jerusalem artichokes, are spotlighted as the featured ingredient in this unique sandwich. Crunchy pecans and a smooth creamy avocado sauce pair up in supporting roles. Serve the sandwich with a salad and fruit for a tasty light meal.
Sunchoke Pecan Sandwich is one of the delicious recipes in Zel Allen's cookbook The Nut Gourmet: Nourishing Nuts for Every Occasion published by Book Publishing Company in 2006.
Yield: 3 to 4 sandwiches