My introduction to sunchokes (Helianthus tuberosus) was as an exotic item on fancy menus, where they were called Jerusalem artichokes. I remained in the dark about the true provenance of this wonderful North American plant for many years. Then, several years ago, I visited the farm, Soiled Reputation, of Anthony John, a.k.a. the Manic Organic, in Perth County, Ontario. Strolling through one of the recently turned fields, I noticed tubers littering the furrows—chokes, whole or pieces—here and there on the ground. I quietly picked up a few, shoved them into my pocket and planted them when I got home.
Well, those first, somewhat ill-begotten tubers, failed. Karma? So, I emailed him, confessed my sin, and asked him for a few to plant, and standup guy that he is, he sent me down a grocery bag full. I shared some with friends and planted the rest, and I’ve been rolling in them ever since.
This workhorse is neck and neck with bee balm for my heart. Also known as sunroot, earth apple or, in French, topinambour, which is not to be confused with topinambur, a German grappa-esque spirit distilled from the tuber.
A member of the sunflower family, the sunchoke is native to eastern North America, from Quebec all the way down to Florida, and it’s found as far west as North Dakota and Manitoba. This indigenous flowering perennial is now commercially cultivated for its tasty tuber and often grown by flower gardeners for its pretty yellow flowers on towering stalks—up to 5.5 metres (15 feet) in my garden!—often without the gardener being aware of the delicious bounty under their feet.
Their unique flavour almost defies description, and just about everyone who tries them for the first time has their own way of expressing the taste: earthy, sweet, crisp, fresh, like water chestnuts or very subtle. I find they taste quite like raw, unsalted sunflower seeds. That figures, right?
There are just as many ways to eat them as there are to describe them. Treat sunchokes as you would a potato—they fry up into amazing chips! They can be grated and fried into latkes, or sliced and used in scalloped potato recipes. Use them in soups, stews, purées and mashes, either with potatoes or on their own. Enjoyed raw, they’re crisply refreshing and do beautifully shaved or grated into salads; just keep in mind, they brown, as an apple does, so quickly dress them in a vinaigrette.
And these multi-purpose plants are super-easy to grow: they’re tough, drought- and disease-resistant. Pests don’t seem to make a dent in them, but their lower leaves do tend to suffer from powdery mildew if they’re not perfectly happy.
Their impressive height makes them great for privacy and background planting, and since they bloom well into the fall—as late as mid-November in my southern Ontario garden—they offer bees and other pollinators one last chance to feast before the big chill.
Also, with sunchokes, there is no need to replant year after year; this is a plant-once-and-forget-about-it crop. However, left unchecked or uncontained, they can take over your garden. Eat them to control them.
Because their stalks are thick and strong, with wide leaves, they can do double duty as living trellises for climbers that enjoy a bit of shade: peas, cucumbers, wax beans. They’re quite pretty with volunteer morning glories weaving their way up to find the sun. I’ve stripped the bottom-most leaves off an exceptionally thick and tall sunchoke stem for this purpose, with no harm done to either the flowers above or the tubers below.
Sunchokes are ready to harvest late in the season. Dig them up too early and all you will find will be tiny nubbins and brittle roots. For the fattest, juiciest, most flavourful tubers, wait until you’ve experienced two killing frosts. The tops should be grey and completely withered and crunchy. That means all the sugars, water and other good stuff has drained back down into the hungry tubers. And remember, leave a few tiny ones behind to ensure a good crop next year. Or you can just leave them in the ground all winter long. I’ve even dug them up in April, just as soon as the ground thawed, and there they were, crisp, fat and tasting just as sweet as they did in November. But, keep in mind, as soon as they get to work making the plant, they will lose weight, sweetness and moisture.
Turns out sunchokes are one of nature’s richest sources of inulin, a prebiotic dietary fibre, or fructan. It’s a substance that feeds probiotics, and probiotics are the good bacteria that live in our guts. When we feed probiotics with prebiotic-rich foods, they have a fiesta, and they get a little, ahem, gassy. It’s all good, and good for you. Just don’t serve sunchokes on a first date … or second … or third … Perhaps it’s best to wait for marriage before you feed your beloved sunchokes? But when you do, here are two of my favourite ways to cook them.
Bacon-Wrapped Sunchokes With Chèvre and Maple Balsamic Reduction
Serves 4 as a side dish or appetizer
6 to 12 slices bacon, depending on size of chokes
Serves 4 as a side dish
1 large lotus root, peeled and sliced
12 arrowhead roots, trimmed
4 to 5 burdock roots, peeled, chopped and quartered
2 tbsp (30 mL) olive or other favourite oil
2 to 3 tbsp (30 to 45 mL) maple syrup
Salt and pepper to taste