September 28, 2009
I have a new vegetable obsession: sunchokes. I discovered them at the American Indian museum’s wonderful cafe, Mitsitam, where the seasonal menu currently includes something called “roasted sunchoke soup.” On Friday, as I wandered through the cafeteria trying to decide on a side dish, a fellow patron spotted the cup of beige-colored soup on my tray and asked what kind it was.
“Roasted sunchoke,” I said. “I had it earlier this week and it’s amazing; you should try it!”
She narrowed her eyes, peering at the creamy concoction as if it might be poisonous: “What’s a sunchoke?”
“Umm…it’s a…vegetable?” I answered. “I mean, I think. But it tastes a little nutty…I guess it could be a grain?…Anyway, you should definitely try it…”
She didn’t look convinced. So, now I’ve done my research (although I’m sure you all are much smarter than me and already knew this): A sunchoke, also called a Jerusalem artichoke, is a type of root vegetable called a rhizome. It is only distantly related to the more commonly known globe artichoke—they’re in the same general plant family, Asteraceae, but belong to different genera.
As it turns out, I’ve seen plenty of sunchokes before, I just didn’t know it… the above-ground portion of the plant, Helianthus tuberosus, is a familiar sunflower which grows so well that many gardeners consider it a weed. Its bulbous root, which resembles ginger or a very lumpy potato, is deliciously edible. It has a slightly sweet taste that comes from high levels of inulin (a sugar compound).
The plant is native to North America, so it’s unclear how Jerusalem got involved in the name. It may be a corruption of the Italian word for sunflower (girasole) that happened at some point after explorers introduced the plant to Europe. Similarly, some think it may be a corruption of a Dutch place name, Ter Neusen. Or maybe it has something to do with the idea of European explorers viewing North America as a “new Jerusalem.” Or maybe… you know what, who cares? You should just try it already!
Food & Wine has a recipe for artichoke and sunchoke soup; there are sunchoke fritters on the NYT Bitten blog; and you’ll find sunchoke ravioli with prosciutto and peas—along with the funny tale of a home cook’s first encounter with sunchokes—at the Atlantic’s food channel.
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