From Thanksgiving to Easter, these delicious tubers are waiting to be discovered by many hungry Americans. Delicious as it is, Helianthus tuberosus suffers from an image problem that has lingered for four hundred years, a bad name. If there is a reason more people aren't cooking them, it can only be the ridiculous name Jerusalem artichoke. Being neither from Jerusalem, or in the family of artichokes, or having a "choke" of any kind, this is the name most often used. Centuries ago, when this plant first arrived in Europe from its native soils of North America, it spread in popularity, especially in Italy and France. The Italians called it girasole, meaning sunflower. After all, helianthus is a wild sunflower with edible tubers produced in its root stalks. Sometimes, the plant was called girasole articiocco, an archaic word for artichoke, whose taste it resembled.
When the Jerusalem artichoke was introduced to England, the British felt the need to "correct" the name from girasole (gee-rah-so-lay) to "Jerusalem." That name spread throughout the English speaking world, and back to its native land, where it has been called Jerusalem artichoke for centuries. The French made the same mistake, naming the tubers topinambour, after the Brazilian Indians, the Topinambas, who had never even seen the plant. Gratefully, after all these years, the name is changing. I call them sunchokes, and this is a name that chefs are using more and more often. Perhaps the better name would be sunroot, if only people knew what you were talking about!
Whatever you call them, grow them, cook with them, eat them. They are a very productive plant, needing little care, producing a pretty summer flower and a delicious winter food. Like potatoes, there are many varieties that all cook slightly differently. There are red skins and brown skins. The globular, protuberant Stampede is an early harvest variety, while the more tubular Fuseau varieties are somewhat easier to use. They are starchy with a nutty, even mushroomy flavor to me, and a touch of sweetness. Also like potatoes, they make marvelous fried chips, they can be baked or roasted or poached. Sunchokes are delicious with simple accompaniments like nut dressings or salsas. On the menu at Park Kitchen right now, we have one of our simplest soups. We roast them with their skins on, and puree them with vegetable stock and olive oil, then pass the puree through a fine sieve. The soup is rich and creamy, complimented with honey poached pears and hazelnut crumble.