Ingredient of the Week: Sunchokes

Sunchokes, also known as Jerusalem Artichokes, first really came onto my radar a few weeks back at The Cheese Shop’s Farm to Table Dinner, where they served a smashed sunchoke and potato side dish.  I had heard of the ingredient a few times here and there, maybe on Food Network, in a blog or at a farmer’s market, but was always so confused by it that there was no getting me near that thing.  Was it a root, similar to a potato that you can boil or bake?  Do you have to cook it or can you eat it raw?  Or is it more of a spicing agent with its similarity in appearance to ginger or fresh turmeric?  Does it have to be peeled or can you eat the skin?  These were all questions that floated into my mind as I was confronted with the ingredient, so overwhelmed by it all that I didn’t dare consider bringing some into my kitchen.

Now that I think about it, I’ve often felt this way about less common ingredients I find at the market.  Similar to celery root (celeriac) or fava beans, my curiousity about ingredients such as sunchokes was overshadowed by my fear of the unknown.  I admit, I’ve been known to judge a book by it’s cover once or twice in my time.  I remember the day a bulb of fennel once growled viciously at me from the shelf of the grocery store, offering a challenge that my insecurities told me was out of my league.  Yet my instinct spoke otherwise: since incorporating it into my cooking I have learned to embrace its licorice-like flavor and crunchy texture, enhanced only by the discovery of its ease and incredible versatility.  It was then that I realized, isn’t the experience of learning new and exciting things perhaps what I love most about cooking?  With this newfound enthusiasm at the forefront of my mind, I grabbed a few sunchokes out of the basket at the Aspen Emporium and Flying Circus and set out to conquer at least one of my fears.

With a little examination and research, I discovered that the sunchoke’s bark really is a lot bigger than its bite.  From reading about the sunchoke, I learned that they are of the tuber family, which also includes potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, ginger, jicama, parsnip, radish, and rutabaga.  Contrary to popular belief, they are not in fact related in any way to the typical artichokes we find in markets.  They are actually, and quite surprisingly, a part of the sunflower plant that grows below the ground.  Nutritionally speaking, sunchokes contain a significant amount of inulin, a carbohydrate linked with a healthy digestive system due to its probiotic (bacteria forming) properties.  They are also high in fiber, B vitamin folate, vitamin C and iron.  Most of these nutrients, however, are found in the skin of the sunchoke, so I recommend cleaning it well and cooking it skin on.

Appearance-wise, sunchokes have a beige or even brown skin and are nobby and similar in size to ginger.  In fact, it would not be unheard of to confuse a sunchoke with a piece of ginger in a market, so be mindful of that when shopping.  In terms of taste, they are nutty, often sweet, and do share some similarities with the flavor of an artichoke (perhaps that is how they got the name?).  They can be treated in the same way as a potato, boiling it to soften and then mash it, baking to a soft on the inside, crispy on the outside consistency, or pan sauteing with other veggies in a stir-fry.  Contrary to the potato, it can be eaten raw, as many recipes call for throwing some thinly shaved sunchoke into a leafy green salad for a fresher take on the tuber.

Simple Roasted Sunchoke

To be honest with you, the original title of this recipe was Roasted Sunchoke Chips but the thin pieces of sunchoke came out soft rather than crunchy and crispy, so I had to change it a bit.  This one is so simple I would hardly count it as a recipe.  Preheat your oven to 300 degrees.  After washing your sunchokes well, chop them into small pieces.  Coat evenly in olive oil, sea salt and pepper and, if you would like, some chopped rosemary.  I have found that the flavors of sunchoke and rosemary work well together.

Spread the pieces evenly on a baking sheet and throw in the oven for fourty five to an hour, until the pieces are nicely browned on the outside and soft with a bite on the inside.  Remove from heat and allow to cool for five minutes before serving.  This works best as a side dish, with maybe some roast chicken or a nice fillet of fish and alongside some fresh veggies.

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