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274 • Fall

Sunchokes

Helianthus tuberosus • perennial

Looking more like a widget than a vegetable, this knobby tuber knows that it’s the inside that counts. It’s one of Eva’s favorite plants to grow. She says, “It’s wild, which is another way to say that it doesn’t require much effort. Plus it’s winter-hardy—you can harvest the chokes in the fall and if you haven’t dug them all up, they’ll hang in come spring.” Despite its name, this tuber is not related to the artichoke. Nor is it from Jerusalem, despite its other common name, Jerusalem artichoke. This plant originated in North America and in 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh found Native Americans in what is now Virginia, cultivating these tubers which they called “sunroots”. The edible root belongs to a tall plant sporting big yellow flowers closely resembling those of its cousin, the sunflower. The Italians came over and they named it, logically, girasola, the Italian word for sunflower. At some point a settler was talking about this tuber, girasole, and whomever he was talking to misheard it as “Jerusalem.” The name somehow stuck, so the poor plant’s name got corrupted in a reallife version of the game “telephone.” Then, in 1605, a French mariner, Samuel de Champlain, described eating “a Jerusalem” on Cape Cod. Champlain was an influential fellow, founding Quebec City and ”discovering” a body of water (of course, the Indians had discovered it long before him) that he named, modestly, Lake Champlain. He savored this tuber and proclaimed that the Jerusalem had the taste of artichokes. So the two ideas—Jerusalem and artichoke—came together rather comically as Jerusalem artichoke in the 1600s. Many food buffs prefer to call these tubers sunchokes (as do many supermarkets), since this name is much less misleading. Maybe it would have

been wiser, food historian Elizabeth Schneider writes in Uncommon Fruits and Vegetables and Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini, if we had hadn’t veered from the Native American name, sun root.

Culinary Uses
Sunchokes are a big favorite of mine. When they are roasted, an artichoke flavor comes forth, the interior becomes soft as pudding, and the exterior caramelizes and develops a sweet, nutty crunch. Just thinly slice them and toss with plenty of minced garlic, salt, pepper, and a splash of olive oil, and roast on a sheet pan until they are crunchy and caramelized on the outside and soft on the inside. Roasted sunchoke is a great side dish at Thanksgiving. Sunchokes also perform miracles in soups, veggie burgers, stews (like pork stew), and mashes with other tubers. Chef Denis Cotter (author of Wild Garlic, Gooseberries . . . and Me) makes a roasted sunchoke risotto with lemon thyme oil; he does so by peeling and braising the sunchokes, then pureeing them. I have added chopped sunchokes to my own tomato sauce; with their earthy flavor, it’s akin to adding mushrooms. Some people eat the sunchoke raw, like daikon radish or jicama, in salads or use it for making kimchi. The flavor and texture are similar to those of a water chestnut—there is a nice crunch, but the flavor in my opinion is bland. In terms of raw vegetables, I’d much rather stick with raw jicama or daikon—and I’ll take my sunchokes roasted, thanks very much.

Health Virtues
One warning: sunchokes can cause flatulence, so it’s best to send your friends right

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along home after dinner. The primary form of carbohydrate in sunchokes is inulin (not insulin), and we can’t digest it, so therefore we need to release it. Some need to release it more than others. The upside is that sunchokes have significant health benefits, and they make a great potato substitute for diabetics because of their low impact on blood sugar.

mulch should keep the ground insulated and unfrozen. Chefs like to peel sunchokes for a smoother, silkier texture. My opinion is that no matter how you are using them, you don’t need to take the skin off. The skin is as thin as that of redskinned potatoes, and we could all use the extra fiber and vitamins. Just scrub lightly to get rid of any soil.

Buying, Storing, and Prepping
Just-dug sunchokes are in a different league from supermarket sunchokes. Fresh chokes are juicier, nuttier, and just yummier. Besides, a good farmers’ market will have plenty in the fall when they are in season; a supermarket may or may not have them at any given time. Sunchokes can be stored for up to six weeks in the vegetable bin of your refrigerator, in a plastic bag. However, they store best in the ground. Dig a trench or hole, add the sunchokes, then cover with soil and a thick layer of mulch. You can dig them up as you need them. The

Growing Sunchokes
In the spring, plant fresh sunchokes 6 inches deep in loose, well-drained soil, spacing plants 18 inches apart, preferably in full sun to encourage well-developed tubers, But, as Eva warns, “you might regret it,” since the sunchoke patch will spread over time. Definitely give them a dedicated area of the garden or border, since any small piece of tuber you leave behind (intentionally or not) will sprout a new plant the following year. It is almost impossible to overharvest sunchokes. Come October, the tall stalks with their yellow flowers (which some people say have a light cocoa fragrance) will wither, and then you can start digging. Simply dig up the plant and collect the tubers with your hands. Or, depending on your climate, you can leave them in the ground through the winter, digging them up as you need them; cover the plant area with heavy mulch (like burlap bags, hay, or wood chips) to keep the ground from freezing solid.

276 • Fall

Sunchokes in Chicken Broth
MAKES 4 SERVINGS

I happened to be teaching a group of sixteen-year-olds how to make chicken pot pie one day, and we roasted three chicken breasts on the bone. Afterward I brought the cooked bones home and made a little stock. Customarily stocks, as you may know, are made from raw bones. But this stock was rich and redolent. I recommend roasting the chicken a day or two before, so you have your bones to make broth.

1–2 pounds cooked chicken bones 3 stalks celery, coarsely chopped 3 medium onions, coarsely chopped 1 carrot, coarsely chopped 1 head garlic, split crosswise like an English muffin 2 sprigs rosemary 3 cups thinly sliced sunchokes 1 cup greens or herbs (chervil, chickweed, cilantro, spinach, sprouts, or whatever you have) Salt and freshly cracked black pepper

1. Make a stock by combining the bones with 8 cups water and the celery, onions, carrot, garlic, and 1 sprig of the rosemary. Bring to a simmer and let simmer for at least 2 hours, adding more water as it cooks down. 2. Strain the bones and vegetables from the liquid. You should end up with about 6 cups stock. 3. Place the stock in a large soup pot and add the sunchokes. Bring to a simmer and let simmer for 8 minutes, then remove from the heat and let steep for 10 minutes. Bring the soup back to a simmer and add the greens and any chicken meat left on the cooked bones. Season the soup generously with salt and freshly cracked black pepper to taste and serve.

Conserving Energy
Eva revels in conserving fossil fuels. Her woodstove gets a workout. She gets the wood from her own land. In cold months she capitalizes on the hot flat-top surface to heat water for tea, for cooking, and for washing dishes. She’ll stack pots on top of pots, Asian-style, when steaming or reheating food, to reap the benefit of the emanating heat. She’ll simmer stocks all night in a Dutch oven or pressure cooker on the flat top. She’ll make toast or bake whole potatoes on the flat top under an inverted stainless steel bowl. She puts a little rack inside the firebox for grilling fish or meat. She keeps her hot water tank set on vacation mode (around 100 degrees F) throughout the year and only turns it up for a shower. She uses a washing machine for clothes but always uses a cold-water cycle. And she hangs her clothes on a clothesline year-round.

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Sunchoke Bisque
A velvety-smooth version of sunchoke soup. The recipe comes from Kristin Costa, Jim Mercer’s sous chef at the Bay Club in Mattapoisett, Massachusetts, not far from Eva’s farm. Jim is a good friend of Eva’s and comes for dinner often with his boyfriend, John McCormack, who is an avid gardener. But this recipe is all Kristin’s, he quips. She says, “It is a pretty simple recipe; there is a minimum of ingredients because I like to showcase Eva’s beautiful fresh-dug sunchokes.”
MAKES 10 SERVINGS

2 tablespoons butter 1 tablespoon canola oil 2 cups chopped leeks (whites only) 2 cups minced onion 3 pounds sunchokes, roughly chopped (I like to leave the skin on, but make sure you scrub well) 1 large russet potato, peeled and roughly chopped 7 cups fresh chicken stock Salt and freshly cracked black pepper Caramelized chestnuts (very optional, but nice) Extra-virgin olive oil for drizzling

1. Heat the butter and oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the leeks and onion and sauté until slightly caramelized, about 15 minutes. Add the sunchokes, potatoes, and chicken stock. Season to taste with salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Bring to a simmer, and let simmer until the potatoes and sunchokes are soft, about 15 minutes. I skim off the foam that forms with a ladle. 2. Puree the soup in small batches in a blender until smooth. If you prefer a thicker soup, keep some of the liquid in the pot when you ladle the soup into the blender. 3. Strain the soup through a fine-mesh sieve to remove any fiber; you should get a silky-smooth bisque. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary, and serve with caramelized chestnuts (if using) and a few drizzles of olive oil.