One theory speculates that the word, Jerusalem, is a corruption of the Italian word, girasola, which means "turning toward the sun". This is a reference to a biological trait called heliotropism that exists in all members of the sunflower family. Their blooms turn toward the direction of the sun and follow it across the sky. Another theory about the name involves a garbled pronunciation of the Ter Neusen, Netherlands area where the Jerusalem Artichoke was originally introduced to Europe. Today, you generally find them marketed under the name sunchokes.
Sunchokes are native to North America and were cultivated by Native American tribes who called them sunroots. They gained popularity in French kitchens prior to the 17th century when potatoes became common. They soon became a favorite accompaniment for meat dishes and stews in Europe and the United States. Still grown in many home gardens in France, the sunchoke was most popular during the World Wars when food was rationed. Sunchokes, rutabagas, and other root vegetables were easy to grow and store and became common meal accompaniments.

Over 200 varieties of sunchokes are currently available. They are used not only as a source of fructose in many commercial products, but also to make alcohol. The sunchoke is currently better known and more popular in Europe than in the United States.

Legend says that all newly discovered sunroot plants were sent to the Pope where he, in turn, gave them to his friends to cultivate. One of those friends was Cardinal Farnese who first grew Jerusalem artichokes in Rome in 1617. The sunchoke found popularity on the menus of famous 18th and 19th century French chefs. In Europe today, they are most popular in France.

(photo: WikiHow/CC BY-NC-SA)

The sunchoke's botanical name is Helianthus tuberosus. It's the tuber of a variety of perennial flower in the aster family with blooms resembling diminutive sunflowers. The small, gnarled tubers resemble ginger root. Sunchokes are also called Canada or French potatoes, topinambour, and topinambur. Sunchokes were introduced to Europe from the Netherlands. Artichoke comes from the Arabic, al-khurshuf, meaning thistle, a reference to the appearance of the stem and foliage.

Although available year-round, the main season in North America runs from October to April. The best tubers are smooth, clean, unblemished, and firm with a minimum of bumps. Avoid those with wrinkled skins, soft spots, sprouts, or green areas. Sunchokes bruise easily and need to be handled carefully. Store raw sunchokes in a cool, dry, well-ventilated area away from light. They can be stored in the vegetable drawer of the refrigerator by wrapping in paper towels to absorb humidity and putting them in a plastic bag. Depending on their freshness at the store, raw sunchokes can be stored from 1-3 weeks. Cooked sunchokes should be refrigerated and consumed within 2 days. Canning or freezing is not recommended because of discoloration and deterioration of texture.

(photo: Kelly Rossiter/CC BY 2.0)

Versatile sunchokes can be eaten raw or cooked. Before eating or cooking, scrub the tubers thoroughly with a vegetable brush. Peeling can be difficult due to their shape and isn't necessary since the peels are completely edible. If you do want to peel them, slice off the bumpy areas and use a vegetable peeler. If you want to cook them, it's easier to first boil, steam or microwave the tubers whole and unpeeled and then peel. The knobby tubers resemble ginger roots. They have light brown skin which can be tinged with yellow, purple or red depending on the soil in which they were grown. They're 3-4 inches long and 1-2 inches in diameter. Like potatoes, they can be baked, boiled, steamed, fried, and stewed. However, they cook faster than potatoes and can easily turn mushy in a few minutes so watch them closely.

Roasted Sunchokes (adapted from Irish Food & Cooking by Biddy White Lennon and Georgina Campbell)
1 1/2 pounds Sunchokes
1 tablespoon lime juice
1/4 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon celery powder
1/2 teaspoon crushed dry oregano
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
lime wedges
Wash the sunchokes and cut them in pieces of approximately the same size to prevent uneven cooking. Drop the pieces immediately into water mixed with the lime juice to prevent browning.
Preheat oven to 350° degrees F.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil.
Drain the sunchokes from the lime water and boil them for 3 minutes, or until slightly tender. Remove from the pot and drain.
Mix the flour, salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, celery powder, oregano and cayenne pepper in a plastic gallon bag, shaking the bag until all ingredients are well combined.
Melt butter in a roasting pan.
Coat the sunchokes in the seasoned flour, then roll them in the pan of butter.
Bake sunchokes in the oven for 20-30 mintutes or until golden brown.
Sprinkle with chopped parsley and squeeze on lime juice to taste.
Serve immediately.

Cultivation: The growing requirements for sunchokes are full sun and pH neutral soil. They do best in zones 4a-9b. Like potatoes, plant either the whole tuber or a piece of the tuber that has several eyes. Planting depth is 4-6 inches. Maturity is 110-150 days, depending on the variety and growing conditions. Light frost increases the sweetness of the tubers. Water regularly but do not over-water. They will spread so be sure to give them sufficient room. Dig the tubers in the fall. The plants are attractive to bees, butterflies and birds with bees being the biggest pollinators. This plant provides food for several species of caterpillars and beetles. The nutritious seeds are consumed by songbirds, gamebirds, and small mammals. The stems are sometimes used by muskrats and beavers for dams or dens.

Like other vegetables, sunchokes have numerous health benefits. They store their carbohydrates in the form of inulin, a starch that is not utilized by the body for energy the way sugar is. Because they store carbohydrates in this manner and are satiating, they are recommended as a potato substitute for diabetics. Jerusalem artichoke flour is recommended for those who are allergic to wheat and other grains.

(my sunchoke patch)