Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Delicious Sunchokes for the Winter

Sunchokes are a rather uncommon but delicious root vegetable that I was introduced to a few years ago around this time of year. I was reminded of them when they popped up on the menu at the restaurant that I work at a few days ago. They are also more commonly known as Jerusalem Artichokes, but they are neither from Jerusalem, nor are they an artichoke. It's theorized that the Jerusalem part is a corruption of the word girasole, as they were called by Europeans who discovered the plant which is indigenous to North America. An early French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, in particular sent the roots back to Europe and compared their flavor to the European artichoke after being introduced to them by Native Americans, hence the artichoke part of the name. To avoid confusion, many have begun to refer to them by the name Sunchoke, a combination of sunflower and artichoke.

Sunchokes grow all over the US and when in bloom look like large yellow daisies, or small sunflowers. They are indeed in the same family as both of these flowers. The part that is commonly eaten is the tuber or root. Root vegetables are high in starch and sugar, and the best time of the year to eat them is after the first freeze. The plants begin to put more energy into the storage of sugars in order to survive the winter once the biological mechanism is triggered by a frost. Sunchokes are unique among root vegetables because the sugars break down as fructose instead of the usual glucose, and are safer for diabetics to eat. They are also low calorie and practically carbohydrate free!

The root of the Sunchoke looks a lot like ginger and can be treated as such when preparing them. I usually use a spoon to scrape away the fibrous outer layer to get at the starchy center. They can be sauteed, poached, pureed, roasted, gratinéed, or grated and eaten raw. My favorite way to eat them is made into a soup or in a gratin with lots of bubbly cheese. They are hearty and pleasantly sweet and are excellent with salty ham and mushrooms in the winter. If you are Pollan-ized and trying to be a locavore, they are one of the few foods that would be available to you in the frozen north over the long winter months. Many New Englanders keep them in their root cellars through the coldest time of the year.

Jim Cook of Skylandia Farms in Maine has taken a special interest in root vegetables, including sunchokes, heirloom potatoes, carrots, and parsnips to name a few. Because of mass production, it seems that the root vegetable has lost its favor amongst those who eat for pleasure. I, for one, used to think of most root vegetables only as a vehicle for butter, sour cream, salt, or crispy coating until I met the Sunchoke. Keep an eye out for them at your local supermarket, especially those from Skylandia Farm. They are an inexpensive delicacy to those in the know. You'll be pleasantly surprised how delicious they really are, however, a cautionary word to the wise: Sunchokes can make you blow a mighty wind, so be sure that you're surrounded by good friends with a sense of humor after you've eaten them!

Sunchoke Gratin

1 cup sunchokes, cleaned and thinly sliced or julienned
1/8 pound salty ham, diced
1/2 cup shiitake mushrooms, trimmed and cut into bite-sized pieces as necessary
1 shallot, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup grated gruyere cheese
  1. Sautee the sunchokes, ham, shiitakes, shallot, and garlic together in hot skillet with EVOO.
  2. Season with salt and pepper.
  3. Deglaze with white wine and reduce.
  4. Transfer the sautee to a greased ovenproof shallow baking dish, such as a 9 inch pie pan or a special gratin dish if you have one, and top with cheese.
  5. Roast in a 400 degree oven for about 20, or until the cheese is bubbly and has begun to brown. Optional: finish under the broiler for a minute or two for extra brown and bubbly goodness.
  6. Garnish with smoked paprika, chopped parsley, or white truffle oil.

1 comment:

  1. Love your posts, Greg! That recipe looks delicious. Can't wait to try it. (mighty wind - tee hee!)