Cold-Weather Foraging: Sunchokes (With Pickled Sunchokes and Mushrooms Recipe)

| 12/20/2013 9:08:00 AM

sunchokesSunchoke, 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.

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