RAYS OF SUNSHINE
Sunchokes are easy to grow and even easier to cook.
WRITTEN BY CHRISTINA NELLEMANN
PHOTO BY CHRIS HOLLOMAN
Sunchokes will never win any beauty contests. While they may look a bit like ugly alien babies, these humble sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes, earth apples, and sunroots) are a nutty, delicious addition to everything from soup to sauces.
“Don’t be afraid of them,” says Debbie Branby, owner of The Cheese Board & Wine Seller in Reno. “They look a little weird, but they are so delicious.”
Originally from North America, sunchokes grow much like potatoes with one big difference: These strange-looking babies have beautiful mothers. Their golden flowers on top of statuesque stalks make wonderful summer bouquets and act as shade and windshields for smaller, more delicate plants. In fact, the name Jerusalem artichoke comes from girasole, the Italian word for sunflower. English speakers changed the word into “Jerusalem” and then added “artichoke” at the end since the sunchoke’s nutty flesh is similar in flavor to the spiky vegetable. Sunchoke was a moniker adopted in the 1960s by produce wholesaler Frieda Caplan for marketing purposes.
The popularity of sunchokes as an addition to the backyard garden is increasing, partly because they are so easy to grow. They can be planted in the fall and overwintered in the ground or planted in the early spring for harvesting in the late fall.
“Sunchokes actually are easier to grow than potatoes,” says Bill Mewaldt, owner of Mewaldt Organics.
He grows sunchokes commercially on his farm in Fallon for several restaurants in the area.
“Sometimes when I carry the sunchokes into restaurants, they are mistaken for ginger,” he adds.
Sunchokes are so easy to grow that gardeners may be tempted just to leave them in the ground. For plumper, tastier sunchokes, dig them up in the fall and replant in fertile soil. This is where their hardiness reveals itself. If sunchokes (or a piece of one) are left in the ground, they will continue to grow and bloom like a weed. They can quickly take over a small plot in two seasons.
“To stop them from overtaking a garden, you can pull them up before they bloom,” Mewaldt says. “I pull them a few times over the season and make sure to rotate my crops.”
Mewaldt plants his sunchokes in furrowed rows about three feet apart and puts the seeds about two feet apart on each side of the furrow. Crowding the plants will produce smaller tubers.
Storing and cooking
Once they are harvested, keep sunchokes dry and put them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator as soon as possible. They can store there for several weeks. Mewaldt says he has been able to keep them for about a year.
For 18 years, LuLou’s in Reno has been serving sunchokes on its fall and winter menu. Chef de cuisine Timothy Magee purées and bakes the tubers and uses them for side dishes and sauces as well as LuLou’s popular crab cake with sunchokes and truffle.
“We really try to preserve their natural flavor,” Magee says. “This dish has been on the menu pretty much since [owners] Troy and Coleen [Cannan] opened up 18 years ago and is just as popular today as it was back then.”
Christina Nellemann is a writer and designer living in Washoe Valley. Her sunchoke flowers are the supermodels of her summer vegetable garden.
Where to buy sunchokes
Great Basin Community Food Co-op
Fedco Seeds (Moose Tubers)
Do you have “issues” with inulin?
Sunchokes do provide a variety of vitamins and minerals, including fiber and niacin, and can be eaten as a prebiotic. However, the tubers have a notorious name associated with them: fartichoke. Sunchokes are high in the dietary fiber inulin, and some people may not have the right enzymes to break it down. Inulin is metabolized by bacteria in the colon, and this can cause flatulence and some gastric pain. Don’t eat too many sunchokes at once if you have gastrointestinal issues with other produce such as asparagus or garlic.
Potato Sunchoke Soup
(courtesy of Debbie Branby, owner of The Cheese Board & Wine Seller in Reno. Yields 3 quarts)
1¼ pounds sunchokes (washed and roughly chopped; no need to peel)
1¼ pounds potatoes (washed and roughly chopped; no need to peel)
1 whole yellow onion (peeled and roughly chopped)
6 cloves garlic
4 cups water
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
Pinch of cayenne pepper
Put all ingredients in soup pot, bring to boil, and reduce to slow boil. Cook 45 minutes or until all ingredients are tender. Blend with immersion blender or food processor. Adjust seasoning if needed. Garnish with fresh, chopped parsley.
Note: Use half and half or whole milk instead of cream for a lighter soup.
Skillet Crab Cakes with Sunchokes and Truffle
(courtesy of Timothy Magee, chef de cuisine at LuLou’s in Reno. Serves 10)
1 pound sunchokes, peeled and diced
1½ pounds lump crab
2 shallots, diced
Pinch of red pepper flakes
Sprig of tarragon
1 cup crème fraîche
1 small truffle, sliced
2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon butter
½ cup breadcrumbs
Sauté sunchokes with butter and salt until lightly caramelized. Add shallots and remove from flame. Put in large bowl and cool. Add cooked, cleaned crab as well as salt, pepper flakes, and tarragon, to taste. Fold in crème fraiche. Put mix in small skillet, one cake per person, and cook in 400 degrees F oven for about 10 minutes or until hot and crispy on top.
Before serving, sprinkle top with some breadcrumbs and truffle slices.