Native Edible Plants of the Northeastern US: Sunchokes
Sunchoke: Helianthus tuberosus
Sunchokes, also known as jerusalem artichokes or topinambours, aren't actually artichokes at all. They are the tuber of a plant in the daisy family which is native to eastern North America, growing all the way from eastern Canada and Maine down to Florida.
The flower of the Helianthus tuberosus is very similar to that of a sunflower. In fact, both the sunchoke and the sunflower are related, both being in the Helianthus genus of plants, and the similarity between the plants was what led discoverers to add the “sun” part to the word “sunchoke”.
The part of the sunchoke which we eat, however, is actually the tuber. The tuber of the sunchoke is long, unevenly shaped, and ranges from white to pale purple in color. It has a consistency similar to that of a potato and a a flavor similar to that of an artichoke. (Thus the “choke” part of the name “sunchoke”, even though they're not artichokes at all.)
Sidebar On Inulin
Another fun fact about inulin: Because the human digestive system cannot actually break inulin down, eating large amounts of sunchokes can cause flatulence, just the same as with beans. They won’t hurt you, but they might make everyone else in the room want to, so just as with your favorite bean chili, try to enjoy sunchokes in moderation.
Where To Find Sunchokes
We don’t often find sunchokes in the supermarket because many sunchokes simply never make it that far. Though they’re easy to cultivate and easy to ship, the tubers are full of the carbohydrate inulin (not to be confused with insulin), which, once broken down into its component sugars, is a valuable source of fructose for the food industry. If you don’t see any sunchokes in your produce aisle, blame “big food”, who make it more profitable for farmers to sell sunchokes to them than to end consumers.
If you want to find sunchokes, try a grocery store which specializes in local or organic foods. If you live in the northeast US, ask around at your local farmer’s market. You may need to venture to one of the larger farmer’s markets in your area where there may be a larger number of producers participating, since very few consumers know about sunchokes and therefore relatively few small scale organic farmers will bother cultivating them.
How To Cook and How To Eat Sunchokes
Sunchokes can be eaten raw or cooked. When raw, they have a crisp texture, like a radish or a waxy potato, and taste like a sweeter, milder, nuttier version of an artichoke, with some mild potato flavor thrown in for good measure.
If eaten raw, sunchokes are best sliced thinly and added to a salad rather than eaten alone, since their flavor is very mild and works better as a complement than a centerpiece.
Otherwise, sunchokes can be cooked in any of the ways you might cook a potato - except for boiling, which tends to make them turn into mush. Steam them, pan fry them, deep fry them, roast them, or turn them into a soup, they’re almost as versatile as potatoes but infinitely more interesting.
My favorite application, of course, is the simplest and more sinful: frying.
Fried Sunchoke Chips With Herbed Salt
These are very similar to homemade potato chips, but you'll never mistake them for potato chips. This preparation really allows the sweet, nutty flavor and potato-like texture of the sunchoke to shine, and by adding some fresh herbs and lemon zest in the final salting we add some brightness to balance things out.
How To Check Oil Temperature Without A Thermometer
There are two foolproof ways to check the temperature of oil for deep frying without a thermometer.
1) Drop an unpopped popcorn kernel into the oil. It'll pop when the oil is over 350 degrees.
2) Drop a small chunk of bread into the oil. If the oil bubbles steadily and the bread browns in about a minute, the oil is ready for frying. If the oil doesn't bubble and the bread doesn't brown, the temperature is too low. If the oil bubbles vigorously and the bread browns in under a minute or burns, the temperature is too high.
- 2 lbs sunchokes, unpeeled, scrubbed
- 1 tbsp fine sea salt
- 1 tsp fresh rosemary, minced
- 1 tsp fresh sage, minced
- 1 tsp fresh thyme, minced
- 1 tsp fresh lemon peel, yellow part only, minced
- 1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
- Fill a heavy large pot, such as a stock pot or pasta cooker, up to halfway with oil. I find that peanut or sunflower oil are best for frying without adding too much flavor from the oil or smoking up the house.
- If you have a candy thermometer or similar, clip it to the edge of the pot now with one end well into the oil. If not, keep an instant read thermometer handy. If you don’t have either of those, don’t worry. Later on I’ll tell you how to check the oil temperature without a thermometer.
- Begin heating the oil over medium high heat. This will take a while to come to temperature, so you’ll have plenty of time to prepare everything else.
- If you haven't already, wash the sunchokes, scrubbing the skins clean of any dirt with a stiff brush, the same way you would to scrub a potato. Then, using a sharp knife or a mandolin slicer (or the slicer attachment on your food processor if you have one), carefully slice the sunchoke as thinly as possible. If you’re hand slicing and they’re not perfectly even or paper thin, don’t worry too much. You’ll just have chips that are slightly chewier and take a little extra time to fry.
- Combine the minced herbs, salt, and pepper in a small bowl and keep handy.
- Once the oil reaches between 360 and 375 degrees, begin frying the sliced sunchokes in batches, making sure not to add too many at a time so that the oil doesn't boil over.
- Depending on how thick you cut your sunchoke slices, fry them for between 60 seconds and 3 minutes, or until golden brown.
- As you finish each batch, thoroughly drain it on a double layer of paper towels, making sure to spread the chips out so they don't lay on top of each other. Piling them up makes them soggy.
- Once all of the chips are fried, line either a large bowl or a clean brown paper bag with paper towels and toss the chips with the herbed salt until evenly coated.
- Scatter the chips out onto a large platter, serve, and enjoy!