Along with parsnips and the last of the well-mulched carrots, every New Englander with a garden, or a good eye for old cellar holes, can welcome a once-popular, now mostly forgotten, springtime treat: the tubers of the native American sunflower. Knobby and brown on the outside, but crisply ivory-colored inside, the oddly named Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus of the Compositae family) is neither from Jerusalem nor an artichoke.
According to 18th century linguist J. H. Trumbull, the Algonquian word for it was kaishucpenauk, a compound of “sun” and “tubers.” Unfortunately, the word stayed in America. After traveling to Europe following the voyages of Columbus, this American beauty became girasol, which means sunflower in Spain, while Italians called it girosole, referring, apparently, to a number of plants that turn with the sun, as well as to certain gems. Anglicized, girosole became “Jerusalem” – at least according to some.
Where the word artichoke came from is a bit clearer, although J. I. Rodale in How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method announced that “The name is thought to be a corruption of the Italian name, girasoli articocco, meaning sunflower artichoke.” But Bradford Angier, in his Feasting on Wild Edibles, states simply that, “ … artichoke … stems from the fact that even centuries ago the flower buds of some of the edible sunflowers were boiled and eaten with butter like that vegetable.”
Well. What is certain is that the French explorer Samuel de Champlain noted the tall, bright flowers being cultivated by Abnaki Indians on Cape Cod. “We saw an abundance of Brazilian beans, many edible squashes of various sizes, tobacco, and roots which they cultivate, which have the taste of artichokes,” he wrote. The date was July 21, 1605.
A little later, at what is now Gloucester, Massachusetts, he found them again, calling them “some roots which were good, having the taste of cardoons [a relative of the globe artichoke] … ”
According to Harold McGee in The Curious Cook, lawyer Marc Lescarbot, who had accompanied one of his clients to New France in the New World, carried the first Jerusalem artichoke tubers back to the Old World in 1607 when he returned from Nova Scotia with Champlain. He described them as “a certain kind of root, as big as turnips or truffles, most excellent to eat, tasting like chards [or cardoons], but more pleasant, which when planted, multiplies as it were out of spite, and in such a sort that it is wonderful … .” In France they “increased so much that today all the gardens are full of them.” One can well believe it. Sunchokes tend to take over any plot of ground once planted.
It seems that Paris was all agog during the spring and early summer of 1613, not only because of sunflowers, but by the arrival of six natives from Brazil, members of a tribe known as the Topinamboux. Queen Marie de Medici received them, her son, Louis XIII, played godparent at their baptism, and savvy Parisian street vendors began calling the tubers Topinamboux. But while the French also called them artichaut de Canada (Canadian artichoke), and poire de terre (earth pear), the English stuck to artichoke and Jerusalem. The question, really, is “why?”
According to McGee, Redcliffe N. Salaman, writer of The History and Social Influence of the Potato, described an alternative derivation. His theory originated with friend and botanist David Prain. “Prain thought it likely that the tuber would have been introduced to England as a commodity not from Italy, but from the Netherlands, which had been supplying vegetables to England for many years,” he writes. “A Dutch book of 1618 – four years before the first documented appearance of “Jerusalem artichoke” in English – records that on February 28, 1613, a gardener named Petrus Hondius planted at least one shriveled tuber and “was astonished by the bumper crop he harvested on November 13.”
Prain suggested that the sunchoke became known as the “artichoke-apple of Ter Neusen,” Terneuzen being the town in which Hondius lived. As “Terneuzen” (pronounced “ter-noozen”) traveled to England, it would have meant little to London street vendors, and they could have transformed it to “Jerusalem.”
Regardless of its name, the tubers of tasty Helianthus were mentioned in the first cookbook to be published in America by an American. Amelia Simmons called her 1796 book American Cookery, or the Art of Dressing Viands, Fish, Poultry, and Vegetables, and the Best Modes of Making Pastes, Puffs, Pies, Tarts, Puddings, Custards, & Preserves, and All Kinds of Cakes, from the imperial Plumb to plain Cake adapted to This Country & All Grades of Life.
Finding a few pages to spare after the long title, she suggested recipes for Jerusalem artichokes among “cramberry” sauce, johnnycake, and other local delicacies.
As Amelia doubtless knew, the tubers we now call “sunchokes” – a name apparently coined by Los Angeles specialty produce company Frieda’s Finest – could be boiled, steamed, or sautéed like potatoes. Or peeled, sliced, and nibbled raw. “Choose those that are small, firm, and without pink discoloration,” says Jane Brody, giving directions to 20th century Americans in her Good Food Book. “Wrap them in plastic, and store them in the refrigerator, where they will keep for about a week.” According to her, sunchokes “contain a type of sugar, inulin, that can be safely consumed by diabetics. They are a source of calcium, iron, and magnesium.”
McGee, who thinks that “sunchoke” could more properly be called “sunroot,” reminds us that, “There was a promising period early in the twentieth century when it looked as though the starchless, glucose-poor Jerusalem artichoke could be recommended to diabetics.” Physicians, however, “found that their patients couldn’t tolerate the gastrointestinal side effects.” He explains. “The Englishman John Goodyer put the matter bluntly. The tuber had not been grown in England until John Franqueville, who had connections with the king’s botanist in Paris, received some; he then gave two to Goodyer in 1617.” Goodyer described its attributes like this: “These roots are dressed diverse ways; some boil them in water, and after stew them with sack [white wine] and butter, adding a little ginger: others bake them in pies, putting marrow, dates, ginger, raisins of the sun, sack, etc. Others some other way, as they are led by their skill in cookery. But in my judgement, which soever way they be dressed and eaten they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine, than men … .”
Strong words! Few Mainers of my experience have complained of the problem, perhaps because of our cold winters and the time of harvesting. Planted in the summer as one would parsnips, then allowed to winter in the garden, they’re dug in the spring before first foliage. Overwintering, which causes the sunchoke to “predigest its own carbohydrates,” according to McGee, may offer the antidote.
If you find yourself the lucky recipient of a pound or two of the knobby tubers come spring, short-term storage is easy. They’ll keep for a month if washed carefully and refrigerated in a plastic bag.
McGee (who suggests that heat, “because it extracts both inulin and fructosans,” dissipates problems better than cold storage) recommends pickling. I’ve revised his recipe by substituting maple syrup for sugar, suggesting sea salt to mere “salt,” choosing Tabasco sauce for red pepper seasoning, and making other adjustments.
Scrub well and slice thinly to measure 4 cups:
1 pound sunchokes
As you work, turn the slices in a little lemon juice to prevent browning.
In porcelainized or stainless steel saucepan heat:
2 cups white wine or rice vinegar
2 cups water
When boiling, add the sunchoke slices.
Return to a boil for 4 minutes.
Add and allow to boil for 1 minute longer:
1/4 cup Maine maple syrup
1-1/2 teaspoons sea salt
1 tablespoon pickling spices
1/4 teaspoon Tabasco sauce
6 crushed garlic cloves
Spoon sliced chokes and garlic cloves into a quart jar; pour the boiling liquid over them; cover and refrigerate.
In Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, William Woys Weaver offers a recipe from the Philadelphia edition of Francatelli’s French Cookery (1848) that shows how the artichoke was once served in many American hotels.
Jerusalem Artichokes, a l’Italienne
“Turn the artichokes into any fancy shape, place them in circular order in a deep sauté pan thickly spread with butter; season with mignonette pepper, nutmeg, salt, and lemon juice; moisten with a little [chicken] consommé, put the lid on, set them to simmer very gently over a slow fire for about half an hour – during which time they will, if properly attended to, acquire a deep yellow colour. Roll them up in their glaze, dish up, pour some Italian sauce round them, and serve.”
Weaver adds: “By mignonette pepper, the chef meant a mixture of white and black pepper ground together. His Italian sauce was a tomato sauce. For some reason, cooked in this erudite manner, the artichokes lose their flirtatious ability to elicit gas.”
Sunchokes have a nutty taste and can substitute for water chestnuts in any stir-fry. This recipe is for a stir-fry that enjoys the first asparagus spears, pea pods, or tightly-curled Fiddleheads, as well as sunchokes, which substitute wonderfully for the usual water chestnuts. If you’re trying sunchokes for the first time, limit the amount you consume!
Stir-Fry Springtime Goodies
(For four, depending on appetite)
Carefully wash, peel, and slice thinly:
tubers to measure 1 cup sunchoke slices
Drop the slices into a small bowl of freshly squeezed lemon juice to prevent browning.
Into a hot wok seated on its ring, pour:
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Add and toss together:
2 cups asparagus spears, sliced into half-inch bits
or 2 cups slightly steamed fiddleheads
or 2 cups pea pods
1/2 cup sliced, fresh mushrooms
1 tablespoon shoyu (naturally fermented soy sauce)
1 tablespoon water
1/4 teaspoon Maine maple syrup
Cover your wok and simmer the vegetables until they’re tender – a matter of two to three minutes.
your sliced, lemony-flavored sunchokes
Toss for about one minute.
Serve with mounds of short-grained brown rice and fresh, whole-grain bread. A small, leafy green salad topped with cooked, marinated navy beans, a yogurt dressing, and sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds would ensure more than adequate protein as well as minerals, such as calcium, and vitamins for solid nutrition.