Growing and Preparing Sunchokes

Whether you call them sunchokes or Jerusalem artichokes, these vegetables belong in the urban garden.

/images/backyard-gardening/sunchoke_490.jpgWith a name like Jerusalem artichoke, you wouldn’t think this was a native plant — or an edible root, for that matter. The story of this great misnaming is hardly interesting enough to retell in detail. Suffice it to say that the Italian word for sunflower, girasole, was mistaken for "Jerusalem.” Somewhere along the line, a French explorer compared the taste to artichokes, and it all went downhill from there. The modern name, sunchoke, is a small improvement. But what kind of marketing strategy refers to a food item as "choke”?!

But since a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet, a sunchoke will be just as delicious and reliable when someone comes up with a winning name like sunsugar (its sweetness comes from a form of sugar that’s beneficial to people with diabetes) or sunflour (when some food industrialist makes bread from it).

Some compare the taste of sunchokes to artichokes, turnips or potatoes, even with sunflower seeds. I’ve enjoyed sunchokes sliced raw for salads and roasted with other root crops in casserole dishes. Sunchokes are versatile, and many recipes are available. Ignore any suggestions to peel this gnarly tuber, since that’s difficult to do and unnecessary.

Meanwhile, be forewarned that like beans, onions and peppers, a few folks generate roaring flatulence from sunchokes, while most never experience or even catch wind of this issue. Fortunately, I’m in the latter camp. But for the former group, cooking sunchokes with herbs such as bay, epazote, asafetida or ginger should silence that problem.

Colonists and Native Americans ate sunchokes growing throughout the eastern half of the country. It’s a pretty tough plant that’s also pretty when the 5-inch-wide sunflowers come out just before the first frost. After a killing frost, cut down the 6-foot-tall stalks, harvest the roots or save them in the ground for winter use.

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