Sunchokes: A Little-Known Native Tuber

While harvesting potatoes this week, we came across bunches of tuberous-looking roots in the same area. Turns out, we had ended up with a second harvest that day: sunchokes (aka Jerusalem artichokes). I had never heard of the weird looking roots, but was surprised to find out that the were the roots of the sunflower-like plants that had sprung up in the potato plots that summer.

The flowers, probably familiar to some of you, look like this.

That day, we also took a trip to Campus Club to celebrate the end of the season wrap-up with a tasty lunch. And what did we find there? Sunchoke bisque. Now that we knew the tubers could be made into something that delicious, it was almost more fun continuing to harvest them after lunch. We went back to harvesting with a little more enthusiasm than before.

Our tubers are a little on the skinny side since they had to compete
with potatoes, but they were still prolific in number!

But what are sunchokes anyway? I certainly hadn't heard much about them before harvesting them. so I did some searching to find out a little more about them.
Turns out, even though they also have the name "Jerusalem artichoke", sunchokes are native to North America and have no relation to Jerusalem. They also are in no way related to artichokes and are a member of the Asteraceae family. There are many theories about the name which can be found on the Wikipedia page here. "Sunchoke" is most likely derived from the combination of the words "sunflower artichoke". They are raised for their tubers, which contain 10% protein and lots of carbohydrates. If they're stored for any amount of time, the carbohydrate inulin, which makes up about 76% of the tuber, will be converted into fructose. Fructose is better tolerated by those who are type 2 diabetic and for this reason, sunchokes are promoted as a healthy choice for those living with that condition.

This plant was first widely cultivated by Native Americans, and was brought back to France by French explorer Samuel de Champlain. The French became particularly fond of the vegetable around the turn of the 19th century. It was voted "best soup vegetable" in the 2002 Nice Festival for the Heritage of the French Cuisine. In their raw form, they have a similar consistency as potatoes, but a slightly nuttier flavor. They're often used as soup thickening agents or sliced thin for salad. It should be noted that they also often have the same affect as eating too many beans (if you get what I mean), but seem to be better if cooked first. A recipe for a Roasted Sunchoke Bisque can be found here. 

This plant also was involved with a pyramid scheme in the 1980s where farmers were assured that the plant would soon appear on the commodities market even though there was little market for it at the time. The only profits that were made were by the first few levels of distribution, and many of the farms that had planted large amounts of the crop were ruined. Despite this, sunchokes have started to be seen in menus and grocery stores around the country. They've also become popular for foragers who know the tuber's potential better than your average gardener. 

Hope you enjoyed our little uncommon vegetable lesson for the day! If you're ever out and about and see "sunchokes" at your local co-op or grocery store, give them a try!

3 comments:

  1. And lucky for you, you'll be getting sunchokes out that particular plot of land in perpetuity - whether you want them or not :-)

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