Don’t let the plain packaging fool you. The rather homely sunchoke is actually a mighty fine tasting tuber with a slightly sweet and nutty artichoke flavor and a texture similar to a fingerling potato, making it perfect for many preparations in the kitchen. A member of the sunflower family, the sunchoke is a tuber native to North America, and it was cultivated here long before European settlers arrived. It is easy to cultivate and can readily take over a field or garden if left unchecked.
The sunchoke historically goes by many other names, including the Lambchoke, the Topinambour and the Canadian or French Potato. It’s most commonly referred to as a Jerusalem Artichoke even though it has no particular relation to Jerusalem and is not an artichoke. The term Jerusalem is possibly a mangled version of the French word for sunflower, girasole, since the sunchoke’s flowers resemble those of the sunflower. Another explanation for the name is that the Puritans, when they came to the New World, named the plant with regard to the “New Jerusalem” they believed they were creating in the wilderness. The moniker sunchoke is actually a fairly recent designation, invented by produce wholesaler Frieda Caplan in the 1960’s. She was trying to revive its appeal, presumably by giving it a fun new name.
Whatever you call it and however you prepare it – roasted, mashed, pickled, pureed into soups, or even used as a Bloody Mary garnish – the sunchoke’s versatility should make it a staple in any cook’s repertoire. And indeed, it is growing in popularity with chefs and home cooks. It’s being cultivated more frequently these days, and while not usually found in the grocery store, it is available at most farmers markets in February and March.