A sunchoke is a tuber, like a potato, and is often prepared and eaten as a root vegetable. Light brown and bumpy on the outside and white inside, the sunchoke looks somewhat like a small potato or ginger root. It is native to North America and was cultivated by Native Americans prior to the arrival of European settlers. Also called a Jerusalem artichoke, its name can be a source of confusion because the plant is not closely related to the artichoke; rather, it is a member of the same flower family as the sunflower. With a nutty, somewhat sweet flavor, many cooks enjoy adding bits of the crunchy, raw vegetable to salads or salsas, while others prefer them roasted or mashed.
According to historical reports, Native Americans planted and harvested sunchokes for centuries before colonists arrived. While the plants are hardy and relatively easy to grow, they must be cultivated in the appropriate soil in order to result in a high-quality edible tuber. Plants rooted in less than fertile soil often produce unpalatable tubers and can run wild like weeds.
When in bloom, the sunchoke (Helianthus tuberosus) looks much like a miniature sunflower. It is related to the aster and usually has bright yellow flowers. To harvest the edible tuber, however, gardeners must dig up the bulbous root in spring, before the plant has blossomed.
While a good source of carbohydrates, the sunchoke stores inulin rather than insulin as its starch for extra energy during winter months. This can be useful, especially for people who limit glucose in their diets, because the inulin breaks down into fructose rather than glucose during digestion. This unique quality can make the tuber a good substitute for other starchy foods like potatoes, particularly for diabetics. Some people experience mild gastrointestinal bloating due to this fructose, however, so some proponents suggest introducing sunchokes to the diet gradually, beginning with small portions.
These vitamin-rich roots are high in thiamin, niacin, and iron. They also contain relatively large amounts of potassium and Vitamin C, while being low in calories. The tubers contain no fat or cholesterol, and only small amounts of sodium. A 1 cup (150 gram) serving of sunchokes contains approximately 110 calories, 3 grams of protein, and 2.4 grams of dietary fiber.
Choosing and Storing Sunchokes
When buying sunchokes, look for those that are smooth and succulent, not dry or wrinkled. With an exterior that is knobby and usually tan in color, they look much like ginger root and can be selected similarly. The unpeeled roots should be refrigerated, and will remain fresh for about a week.
There are many recipes that showcase this tuber on its own or with other ingredients. Eaten raw, it is crunchy and very slightly juicy, like water chestnuts or jicama, and is often a welcome addition to salads, crudite platters, and fresh salsas. When cooked, it may be simply tossed with oil and salt and roasted, or boiled and mashed like potatoes. Sunchoke puree is another popular dish, and the tuber is a favorite soup addition, particularly in Europe.
The tuber has been embraced by the home cook and famous chefs for its unique flavor, and as part of a culinary movement to eat locally grown, seasonal ingredients. Many recipes that don't specifically call for a sunchoke may benefit from the addition of the root's texture and flavor. Its taste is frequently described as something between an artichoke heart and a sunflower seed. The vegetable is also popular among vegetarian and vegan cooks looking for variety.