Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus L.), neither an artichoke nor from Jerusalem, but native to North America, resembles an underground small, bumpy potato or ginger root and was first called “sun roots” by early inhabitants. Being a member of the sunflower genus, it was later referred to as “girasole” an Italian term meaning “flower turning to the sun” which may have evolved into “Jerusalem.” While in the area of Cape Cod in 1605, Samuel Champlain, the French explorer, suggested that the tuber tasted like artichokes. During the 1960s, these underground tubers were renamed “sunchokes” by suppliers.
Most of the 23 varieties of domestic sunchokes, also known as earth-apple in England, topinambour in France, aguaturma, pataca and namara in Spain and batata-tupinanba, tupinambor and tupinamba in Brazil, in the U.S. are grown in California. Sunchoke skins may be white, pale brown, red or purple. Many consumers of sunchokes say they not only have a hint of artichoke flavor but a sweet, delicate, nutty essence and are crunchy when eaten raw. To many, the taste of this tuber reminds them of water chestnuts or jicama. Refrigerating them or storing them in the ground for a few days after picking gives them a sweeter flavor. In some cases this tuber has a slight laxative effect.
One cup of raw sunchoke contains 115 calories, 26 grams of carbohydrates, 3 grams of protein and zero grams of cholesterol. The sunchoke has no fat. This underground vegetable is rich in iron and potassium.
The carbohydrates present in sunchoke are in inulin rather than the starch found in potatoes. Many diabetics use inulin as a source of fructose (which is 1.2 times sweeter than sucrose). A word of caution: Inulin cannot be tolerated by some people because it can cause extreme gastric-intestinal discomfort if consumed in large quantities.
Since its 1616 introduction into European cuisine, sunchoke has been more popular in Europe than in North America. Chinese chefs also use sunchoke in many dishes.
Boiled, steamed, buttered, pickled, roasted, hashed and pureed in soups, salads, chowder, as a side dish for meat and poultry, this versatile root is also made into chips. It can be a substitute for potatoes and water chestnuts, too.
The taste of sunchoke goes well with mint, mustard, nut oils, onion, nutmeg, butter, cloves, cinnamon vinaigrette and roasted meats.
Fresh sunchoke is at its peak right after a good frost and is available in the Northern Hemisphere from October through March.
The foliage or top growth of the plant is used in North America as low-grade silage. The tubers, high in protein, make a good protein supplement for livestock feeds.
Medically speaking, sunchoke can be used as an immune stimulant, appetite suppressant, anti-diabetic, blood glucose stabilizer, and an aid to improve colon bacteria ecology.
In France, sunchokes have been used in the production of wines and beer for years.
Although two fuels, butanol and ethanol, can be produced from sunchoke, the cost is prohibitive.
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