The Native Root Vegetable Gets its Much-Deserved Field Day in the Sun

The gnarled root vegetable tastes sweet and nutty.

The sunchoke, the root vegetable of the sunflower family, grows wild in mild climates across North and South America.

Classified as a root tuber—like the sweet potato, cassava and yam—it is similar in appearance to oversized ginger root with its knobby, twisted ends.

Now, reported Nation’s Restaurant News, it is experiencing a revival in high-end restaurants in major cities throughout the United States. It is served in a variety of preparations. It can be cooked in soups and salads, pureed and paired beneath succulent meat, pan-roasted as a side dish, or caramelized to amplify its hearty, rich, sweet and nutty flavor.

The root goes by various names. Many Native groups called it sun root before European settlers arrived. It later took the name Jerusalem artichoke, although the name has fallen out of favor, as it is related to neither Jerusalem nor the artichoke. (As it is, Jerusalem, in this case, is thought to be a contraction of the Italian word girasol, which means “turning to the sun,” as sunflowers do.) Jerusalem artichoke also owes the second part of its name to French explorer Samuel de Champlain, who found it growing in a Native garden on Cape Cod in 1605. He pronounced its taste similar to standard artichokes.

Still other early European colonists called them Canadian potatoes. They liked them so much that in 1616, they sent many back to Europe, where they have been very popular ever since.

Sunchokes have a very thin skin, much like new potatoes or fingerling potatoes and the texture of a water chesnut when sliced raw. They do not require peeling—just scrubbing with a brush to remove dirt.

Sunchoke stems run six-to-10-feet tall and grow best at 65 to 80 degrees with 125 frost-free days. They flourish when they can bathe in the sun, just like their cousins the sunflowers. Still, the tubers are prime for picking after the first or second frost of the year, generally in late summer to late winter. The proper time for harvest is after their numerous branches have grown many small flowers and the stalks have died back. This means they have withered and taken on a hard, fibrous character.

Sunchokes will reproduce season after season if you leave some of the root’s crown tissue in the ground, where the tubers can spread and propagate.

When preparing sunchokes, discard those that are wrinkled or soft, and avoid iron or aluminum pans for cooking, which will turn gray or black.

In a salad, sunchokes pair well with jimica or other crunchy raw vegetables. Personally, I like them cold and pickled. I often substitute sunchokes, which contain vitamins B and C and iron, for potatoes. They also make a great thickener for soups and stews.

For a delectable baked dish, put sunchokes in the oven with a roast (venison, pork, lamb or buffalo) and let the root soak up the drippings.

Pickled Sunchokes

Boil two quarts of apple cider vinegar for a few seconds and remove from heat. Add to this mixture as it cools:
2 tablespoons dill weed
2 tablespoons celery seed
3 tablespoons mustard seed
¼ cup of honey
2 tablespoons dry mustard
¼ teaspoon turmeric
¼ cup salt
4 peppercorns
4 pieces sliced ginger root

Scrub and slice 4 pounds of sunchokes into thin rounds. Pack slices into clean sterilized jars and fill with cooled pickle mixture. Marinate at least overnight.

Sunchoke Dip or Dunk
4 cups sunchokes, peeled and cubed
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 tablespoons sour cream
Dash Worcestershire sauce
Dash Tabasco sauce
A little lemon juice to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
Optional: chopped water chestnuts, some grated carrot for color

Cover sunchokes with water and boil until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain and set aside to cool. Mash cooled sunchokes with cream cheese and sour cream. Then season with Worcestershire, lemon juice, salt, pepper and Tabasco sauce. Serve as a dip with raw vegetables, crackers or pita chips.

Dale Carson, Abenaki, is the author of three books: New Native American Cooking, Native New England Cooking and A Dreamcatcher Book. She has written about and demonstrated Native cooking techniques for more than 30 years. Dale has four grown children and lives with them and her husband in Madison, Connecticut.