Sunday, October 9, 2011

Harvest Ingredient 8: The Sunchoke


I chose this ingredient because yesterday was Yom Kippur, and, curiously, these New World tubers are often called "Jerusalem Artichoke."  When you find them in the stores, they are usually labeled "Sunchoke."  They were, and still are, a Native American food staple of the East coast; though they are known as far south as Brazil, where they are called tompinambour by the colonizing Portuguese, after the Tupi Indians that grew and traded them.  They are a member of the sunflower seed family, and often grow wild in parks and waste area all over the woodland United States.  They have a very handsome flower that looks a lot like a miniature sunflower, but without the seeds.

They were first described in any detail by French explorer Samuel de Champlain in 1605, when he encountered them on Cape Cod.  But in 1585, Sir Walter Raleigh mentions that he had encountered them in cultivation in what is now the Commonwealth of Virginia.  The way that "Jerusalem" came to be attached to them is a bit of a mystery, since they a completely New World food.  The best guess to that is that the Italians called them "girasola" early on, and the "Jerusalem" is an English corruption of that word.  As to how the term "artichoke" came to be attached to them probably comes from the fact their taste can be similar to the Green or Globe Artichoke, which is a thistle and most definitely NOT a sunflower.  Most sunchokes have peel that is dusky colored, but there is also a purple variety.

A curiosity of this plant is that it stores it's carbohydrate as inulin, instead of starch.  For that reason that makes them an ideal food for people with Diabetes.    Not only is lack starch that helps keep blood sugar low when the tubers are ingested, they actually have proven to lower blood sugar.  Type 2 Diabetes is a huge problem for people of Native American decent, in fact some populations, notably the O'odham in the southwest and northern Mexico have the highest incidence of Type Diabetes because they've strayed so far from their original desert diets; in fact, the Tohono O'odham (Papago) people have the highest worldwide; more than any other population on earth!  So the adoption by native communities of New World gardens, including not just Sunroot (Sunchoke) but also other important crops, like Chia, goes a long way toward addressing this issue, and making these populations healthier.

Sunroot/Sunchokes are very high in potassium, along with iron; which makes them good food for people with chronic anemia (again, I can personally attest to this).  They are a good source of fiber, especially if they are eaten raw.  They are also sources of niacin, thiamine, phosphorus and copper, in fact they have just enough copper that they are not recommended in large quantities to people who have a copper allergy.  One annoying thing about the inulin thought is that it can't be broken down by the human digestive tract, so, in some cases they can cause extreme gas buildup and flatulence, and in some cases moderate to even severe gastric pain.  For this reason a lot of native people cooked them with Monarda AKA Beebalm AKA Wild Native Mint, which helps with digestion.  Gerard's Herbal, which was first published in 1621 in Great Britain, quotes the English painter John Goodyer on the subject of eating the tubers for the first time; "which soever way they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a fifthly  loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are meat fit more for swine than men."  And they are used for fodder. Oddly enough, modern research has shown that the inulin actually helps promote a healthy digestive system!

As to how to prepare them, well in olden native food traditions they were eaten raw, made into soups and stews, roasted in embers, put into salads, baked in pits, used in native chowders & gumbos, and pickled.  You can do pretty much anything with them that you can a potato or a sweet potato.  In the contemporary kitchen, they have been mashed and added to mashed potatoes, made into puree, fried or baked into chips, put in a gratin, braised, and, when mashed, made into fried cakes.  They make an interesting tasting dish when paired with real artichokes.  They go very well with other wild edibles (you can also grow these in a garden, they spread like weeds, so be careful).  A common grouping is with nettles and wild ramps (it's a native leek/onion).  Mix them with vegetables, like:  carrot, parsnip, turnip, rutabaga or celery root...even radishes.  They make a great addition to the roasting pan with other veggies, for any type of roast, but especially chicken!  They are basically good with any other New World food; but really good with hard squash or Please note:  if you are going to serve them raw and sliced or chopped, put them in some acidulated water first (that's just lemon water).

Soup made with the purple variety

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