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Sunchoke, also called Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) is a native North American root vegetable that is now cultivated on five continents. It is a delicious ingredient raw or cooked. Except when it’s not. With this vegetable, timing is everything.
I'm not sure how the powers that be get cultivated sunchokes to be sweet year-round. But with the wild ones, it's a different story. Before they’ve gotten the chill treatment from at least a couple of frosts, sunchokes sometimes have a really funky, unpleasant aftertaste. The reason is a starch called inulin. Cold weather or refrigeration turns inulin into fructose, which is why sunchokes taste sweeter after cold weather.
Right now, after a few frosts (in my area at least), wild sunchokes are perfect. At this time of year they’ve got a subtle sweetness that matches the earthy overtones of their flavor. Raw, they are crunchy — something like a cross between jicama and water chestnut — and great on salads. They are also great cooked. Sunchokes cook more quickly than potatoes but can be used in similar ways. And they make interesting pickles.
Another good reason to wait until sunchokes have gone through a chill is that the inulin in sunchokes can cause even more digestive gas than beans do. Fructose doesn’t have the same effect, so once the inulin is converted to fructose by cold weather, this isn’t as much of an issue.
How Jerusalem Artichoke Got Its Name
I prefer to use the name sunchoke for this root vegetable because its other common name, Jerusalem artichoke, is confusing. It is not from Jerusalem and it is not an artichoke. Apparently a French explorer named Samuel Chaplain tried them in Cape Cod in 1605 and announced that they had a taste similar to artichokes. That explains that half of the name (I guess – personally I don’t think they taste at all like artichokes).
The theory about the other half of the name is that early settlers dubbed this plant girasole, which is Italian for “turning towards the sun.” Like its close relation the sunflower, Helianthus tuberosus flowers do indeed turn towards the sun as it moves across the sky. The theory is that girasole sounded like Jerusalem, and the latter became part of the plant’s common name.
Sunchokes can grow up to 9 feet tall. They have flowers that look like small sunflowers. In my area, they bloom from late summer through mid-autumn. The alternate, ovate leaves usually show signs of powdery mildew by the end of August. The stems — and to a lesser degree the leaves — are covered by coarse hairs.
The tubers, which are the part we are interested in for food, look like knobby, gnarly potatoes. Some varieties have a tinge of purple or reddish color. You sometimes have to dig as deep as a foot down to find them, but when you do there will be plenty.
This is one native plant that can be harvested fairly freely if you find a good stand of it. A hardy and quick-growing perennial, it will regrow from even a small chunk of one of its tubers that's left in the ground.
In winter, ID sunchokes by looking for their tall stalks with the remains of flowers or seedheads, and alternate leaf scars or remains of leaves. The stalks will still have that sandpaper-coarse feel from the hairs. But remember Forager’s Rule No. 1: If in doubt, leave it out. Always be 100% certain of your plant ID. If you’re new to identifying this plant, look for it in late summer and early fall when it is in bloom and easy to recognize. Come back during the cold months to harvest.
Store sunchokes in the refrigerator or a cool cellar and use them within two weeks. Or preserve them with this pickle recipe.
Pickled Sunchokes and Mushrooms Recipe
3 cups thoroughly cleaned, sliced sunchokes (slice them about 1/4-inch thick)
1 cup cleaned, sliced mushrooms (shiitake and maitake are especially good in this recipe)
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon whole mustard seeds
1 teaspoon whole allspice
1/2 cup water
1 cup apple cider vinegar
1 tablespoon honey
1 teaspoon salt
Toss the sunchokes and mushrooms together with the peppercorns, mustard seeds and allspice. Pack into clean canning jars.
Bring the water, vinegar, honey and salt to a boil. As soon as the mixture reaches a boil, pour it into the filled jars. The sunchokes and mushrooms should be completely covered by the brine, but there should still be 1/2-inch head space between the surface of the food and the rims of the jars.
Screw on canning lids. At this point you can opt to store the pickles in the refrigerator, where they will keep for 3 months (they are still safe to eat after this, but the quality starts to decline). For longer (up to a year) storage at room temperature, process the jars in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes. Yield 4 half-pint jars.
Either way, wait a week for the flavors to develop before eating the pickles. Serve Pickled Sunchokes and Mushrooms with savory roasted meat or vegetables, or alongside curries.
Leda Meredith teaches foraging and food preservation skills internationally. You can find out about her upcoming classes and her books, watch her foraging and food preservation videos, and find her food preservation recipes and tips.
Read more from Leda: "Cooking With Roses: How to Use Rose Petals, Leaves and Hips."